Idea to Invention

By: Kari Gagner, Marketing Director

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It all started in 2005. Sam Thompson was an 8th grader and had an idea to build a hang glider simulator. Sam’s love of all things flight inspired him to try his hand at building the simulator with help from his father, Bill. After some experimenting and tinkering, the hang glider simulator made its debut at ExplorationWorks in 2007 as part of the Explore the Air exhibit.

Fast forward to 2018. ExplorationWorks reached out to Sam, now a Rotating Equipment Engineer at an oil refinery in northwest Washington, to take a stab at revamping the hang glider in hopes of having it be a key piece in the current Take Flight exhibit. Sam accepted the challenge, travelled back to Helena, and spent a handful of days re-building and modifying the simulator he built over a decade ago.

The Take Flight debuted in February of 2018, with the Sam’s hang glider as crown jewel of the exhibit. Kids of all ages (yes, this means adults too!) line up to take their turn on the simulator. We recently sat down with Sam to learn more about what prompted him to build the simulator in the first place, as well as what he hopes the exhibit will mean to the families that visit ExplorationWorks.

What gave you the idea to build the simulator in the first place?
I've always been interested in flying and was attracted to the simplicity of hang gliding. It's such a simple way to get in the air, and hang gliders are very simple machines, I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to make a device to simulate one.

What has changed from the first version to the current?
There have been several revisions of the Hang Glider Simulator leading up to this one that is currently on the exhibit floor. Initially, the design consisted of various hardware store parts crudely assembled with duct tape and zip ties in the garage. The 'harness' was nothing more than a piece of canvas supported by rope, and the structure was a metal tripod used for lowering heavy items down wells. The second revision consisted of a purpose build support frame, and a combination of gate hinges, wooden brackets and hose clamps for the control gimbal, which at the time was quite the upgrade! At one point the exhibit featured wind that would blow in the occupant's face proportional to the speed of the glider in the simulator. The latest revision consists mostly of machined parts, a real hang glider harness, and the latest in flight simulation graphics, to name a few things.

What do you hope ExWorks visitors will take away from playing with this exhibit?
First and foremost I hope it provides a fun, unique experience. If it is able to pique an interest in flying then that would be an added bonus.

What do you recall when the simulator made its debut?
When the Hang Glider Simulator was first exhibited, I remember that it was a big hit, despite the crude construction. We took it around to many different events and the reception was very positive. It's good at drawing a crowd because people enjoy watching others fly (and crash) on the big screen.

What are you most excited about having this exhibit on display?
I'm looking forward to seeing how it holds up relative to previous versions, in order to gain insight on future improvements that could be made.

Does your love of flying play a part in what you like to do in your spare time?
On my days off I'm actually a pilot and fly charters around the San Juan Islands. In addition, my wife and I have a plane which we use for everything from exploring the backcountry of the North Cascades to flying to the San Juan Islands for lunch.

The Take Flight exhibit will be on display at ExplorationWorks through May 20, 2018. The hang glider simulator features a “flight of the day” with locations such as Mount Helena, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.