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Hang Gliding Once a ‘Soar’ Subject for Students

UML Center for Lowell History Preserves Memories of Bygone Club, Phys-ed Course

A student flies a hang glider Photo by Bill Blood
A student takes to the sky with the university's former hang gliding club, in a photo from the collection that's been preserved online by UML's Center for Lowell History.

By Ed Brennen

Michele Holland ’87 needed to fulfill her one-credit physical education requirement (which was a thing for college students some 30 years ago).

One day on campus, she saw a flyer for the University of Lowell Hang Gliding Club.

“Jeez, I wonder if this would count?” Holland thought.

Turns out, it did. So Holland signed up for the club’s basic hang gliding course. Before long, she was running with a lightweight glider down a small hill in a nearby town, trying to push out and catch just a few seconds of flight.

“It was awesome,” Holland recalls. “I didn’t get off the ground very much, and God willing, I landed on my feet, but we had a lot of laughs, a lot of good times.”

The group’s leader was Bill Blood, an instructor technician in the Francis College of Engineering who co-founded the hang gliding club in 1974 along with late faculty member John Kelly.

Blood, now 90 and living in Londonderry, N.H., recently loaned a collection of more than 60 photos, videos and documents chronicling the club’s 23-year existence to the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History. The entire collection has been digitized by the UML Library’s archive studio and can be found here
Bill Blood poses with library staff at O'Leary Library Photo by Ed Brennen
Bill Blood, front right, poses with library staff members after loaning the university his collection of photos, videos and documents from the hang gliding club.

“It’s nice to know it’s being preserved online,” says Blood, who visited O’Leary Library recently to see how the collection was processed and to share stories about the club.

Director of Libraries George Hart says it’s important to preserve institutional memories like the hang gliding club.

“It’s just captured perfectly here,” Hart says of the collection, which was processed by Senior Digital Documentation and Records Management Specialist Tony Sampas and Archive Assistant Zachary Najarian-Najafi ’16.

“Bill’s one of the characters of campus,” Hart adds. “He’s an inspiring figure.”

‘We didn’t know about wheels’

A native of Pepperell, Mass., Blood worked at the university for more than 30 years, starting in the machine shop in 1966. He discovered a fondness for flight while serving as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 508th Infantry Regiment.

In the early ’70s, he and Kelly decided to start a hang gliding club at the university. They bought plans to build a glider, found materials at the hardware store, made a harness out of car seat belts and asked secretaries from the school to sew the sails at night.
The Hang Gliding Club poses outside of Olney Science Center Photo by courtesy
Hang gliding club members pose with a glider behind the Olsen Science Center.

“We tried it out on a golf course,” Blood recalls. “But we didn’t know about wheels, so when we hit the ground the whole thing fell apart.”

With improved equipment and proper instructor certification, Blood and Kelly received approval for the club from the university’s Board of Trustees in December 1974. Since the university’s insurance program was unable to cover participants, they got a $2,000 accidental death and dismemberment policy from Nationwide that cost students $15 per year.

“We never had any accidents, and everyone wore helmets,” says Blood, who notes that the gliders had built-in parachutes, just in case. “We never lost a student.”

By 1976, Blood and Kelly were offering hang gliding as a one-credit phys-ed course to both day and evening students. Besides learning the mechanics of flying and safety procedures in the classroom, some intrepid students built their own gliders. The club practiced at the Nashoba Valley Ski Area and on Blanchard Hill in Dunstable. It also arranged trips to Cape Cod, where students could fly off the dunes.

With interest growing, the club hosted its first International Intercollegiate Hang Gliding Meet on Columbus Day weekend of 1978 in Claremont, N.H. For 12 years, the meet attracted teams from near and far, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, UMass Amherst, the University of Maryland and colleges in Canada.
A student poses with their hang glider Photo by Bill Blood
A student poses with their University of Lowell glider.

“It was quite a thing,” Blood recalls. “We had hundreds of people come for the competitions.”

Held at the Morningside Recreation Area, the meet was open to competitors of all levels. Novice pilots could glide off low slopes, while advanced pilots could take off from 450-foot launches and score points by hitting the bull’s-eye in landing zones.

Blood himself became an accomplished pilot, taking third at a national competition in San Bernardino, Calif., in 1982, and soaring everywhere from Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Lookout Mountain in Tennessee to Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the Wright brothers made their historic first flight. 

“I could get up in a thermal and go for 20 minutes,” Blood says. “It was quite thrilling.”

The university eventually grounded the hang gliding club in 1996. 

“I think they were just worried about people getting hurt,” say Blood, who wishes the club could one day be revived but knows that’s unlikely. Today, UML students get their adrenaline pumping with activities like whitewater rafting, rock climbing and surfing – all offered by Campus Recreation’s Outdoor Adventure Program. 

A New Challenge

Blood continued hang gliding until 2004. After “thousands” of flights, his significant other, Julia Parkhurst, convinced him to give up the sport at age 75.

Around that time, Blood was leaving his gym in Londonderry and bumped into Holland, whom he hadn’t seen in 25 years. Holland and her husband, fellow physical therapy alum Jerome Holland ’87, lived in Londonderry and owned their own business, Performance Rehab Inc. in Nashua, N.H.
A student sails off the dunes at Cape Cod Photo by Bill Blood
A student glides off the dunes during a club trip to Cape Cod.

Holland, who has run the Boston Marathon seven times and done two Iron Man triathlons, told Blood that she was training for the Mooseman Triathlon at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire. Blood wanted in.

They competed together at the Mooseman, and Blood had discovered his new passion. Two years later, he won his age group at a triathlon at Lake Winnipesaukee, and in 2013 he took first at a national competition.

“He’s an amazing guy,” says Holland, who has enjoyed a “pretty cool friendship” with Blood over the past 15 years, often finding him holding court at their local Dunkin’ Donuts. “He was a very patient, very calm instructor, and he truly has a passion for hang gliding that’s contagious.”

Blood has five kids, 11 grandkids and “eight or nine” great-grandkids. One of his grand-daughters, Michelle Blood ’12, earned a degree in philosophy from UML. He also has hundreds of former hang gliding club members whom he considers family.

“Everywhere we went, we’d be at Disney World, and one of them would say, ‘Hey, Bill!’” Blood says with a smile. “It was a good bunch of kids.”

“Bill was the hub of the wheel who kept us connected,” says Holland, who never tried hang gliding again after college. But she’s glad she took a flyer and joined the club.

“When I joined the hang gliding club, I thought, ‘Who does this?’” Holland says. “Then we went up to Claremont, and I saw that there’s hundreds of people who do this. It opened my eyes to other sports and activities that people do, which is pretty cool. I’m glad I did it.”