YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

O.C. hang glider maker is still soaring after 40 years

Wills Wing, founded in the early 1970s when the sport was just taking off, is the world's biggest manufacturer of hang gliders. Its executives emphasize quality.

November 04, 2012|By Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times

Once a week, Steven Pearson and Michael Meier strap on helmets, jump off a mountain and try to fly like birds.

The two run Wills Wing Inc. in Orange, the world's biggest manufacturer of hang gliders. Pearson, 56, the company's president, and Meier, 62, its chief financial officer, also are part of a team of pilots that flies every glider.

Test flight days can be grueling, lasting as long as 12 hours in the San Bernardino Mountains. They fly even when temperatures top 100 degrees because skipping a week is not an option.

"If we did not do this," Meier said, "the quality of our products would decline precipitously within a matter of months."

Founded in 1973, when the hang-gliding sport was taking off, Wills Wing has remained aloft in an industry that has dwindled to fewer than a dozen serious competitors from more than 80 makers worldwide in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A key to the company's survival, its executives said, is "a continuous feedback loop" — including their unusual test pilot role — that helps maintain high standards for Wills Wing gliders. And that's pretty important when a product failure can mean serious injury or death.

Product quality is one of the main reasons why the manufacturer finally gave up last year on having even its most simple products made in China.

Quality control was an administrative nightmare, Meier said, hardly a great selling point for a company with the motto "higher than eagles," whose customers expect to fly as high as the cloud base and to remain aloft for hours.

But because the potential cost savings were so great, Wills Wing gave Chinese manufacturing a try. "You could have things made there for less than the cost of the raw materials here," Meier said.

From 2003 through 2008, the company had the sails for its entry-level glider made at a factory in the Tai Po district of Hong Kong. For three more years, it tried to have glider covers made but discontinued the contract in 2011.

"It would have required our direct presence there on a regular basis, which we don't have the ability to do," Meier said. "Cost of manufacture is not the main issue for us. Control of quality is."

Wills Wing makes a line of hang gliders ranging in price from the $3,800 Falcon, for those relatively new to the sport, to the competition class T2C 144, which costs $8,585.

In July, a T2C 144 — made of advanced aluminum alloy tubing and ultraviolet-radiation-resistant Mylar fabrics — was used to break a 12-year-old world distance record. A pilot flew the glider for nearly 473 miles in almost 11 hours.

In 2012, Wills Wing is on pace to sell 660 hang gliders, 28 more than in 2011. Revenue is expected to hit about $3 million this year.

Wills Wing has faced many challenges: Ask company officials how they survived the recession and they will inquire, without a trace of sarcasm, "Which one?"

Meier, as a member of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, has been to Washington to fight to keep the sport self-regulated. That's not the easiest task for an activity in which people were still dying by the dozens in the 1970s because they failed to recognize that this was aviation and not just recreation.

Pearson, the chief glider designer, has expended significant effort wringing efficiencies from a workforce that is half its former size.

"We sell to a relatively small and relatively stable worldwide market," Meier said, "and because this is a mature industry — the sport is 40 years old, as is our company — the industry has long since gone through several shakeouts. Of the few manufacturers left, we have the best products and service, and the most efficient operation, so we're very cost-competitive."

The company, which was co-founded by brothers Bob and Chris Wills and once employed 30 people, has endured some trying internal transitions.

One occurred for positive reasons but was still difficult. Chris Wills left the company in 1976 to attend medical school. Another was acutely painful. Bob Wills was killed in June 1977 while flying his hang glider for a Jeep commercial.

That was when several employees, including Pearson and Meier, stepped forward to become partners and keep the company going. A key member of that management team, Rob Kells, died in 2008 after a battle with cancer. Chris Wills, now an orthopedic surgeon, remains on the Wills Wing board.

Meier and Pearson are hoping for a much more orderly transition to the company's next generation of management.

"It's something we talk about a lot," said Meier, who studied physics at Stony Brook University in New York and worked briefly as a teacher and at a motorcycle shop before taking up hang gliding in the mid-1970s.

"We have invested in mentoring a number of young, very good and very enthusiastic pilots in ways in which they might have become involved with the industry and our company," Meier said, "with the idea that this might lay the groundwork for some kind of succession plan."

Los Angeles Times Articles