Jean-Michel Bernasconi first landed on the planet on March 25, 1956. He had the great good fortune of being born and raised in Chamonix, France, with the Mont Blanc in his backyard. He spent his teen years helping his dad with his stone masonry business, singing in a rock ‘n roll band, cross-country skiing, and rock climbing in the French Alps. Then one day, in the early 1970s, Jean-Michel met the pioneer pilot Rudy Kishazi – the first person to loop a hang glider, and he was absolutely mesmerized. Jean-Michel saw Rudy escape the bonds of gravity (at least temporarily) and he quickly became obsessed with hang gliding or vol libre (“free flight”) as the French call it.
What followed were years of both near death and near heaven experiences as he fine-tuned his skills as a pilot and eventually as a hang glider designer. He met and fell in love with a sweet American girl named Joan and followed her to the U.S. where he joined the hang glider competition circuit. That was a bohemian life– traveling from meet to meet, living out of his van, cooking cheese fondue for flying friends he met along the way; often winning just enough prize money and sponsorships to get him to the next competition.
He then teamed up with Marty Alameda, founder and President of Flight Designs (partially owned by Pioneer Aerospace Corporation), and eventually worked his way up to become VP. Tragically, Marty was killed in an ultralight accident in 1982. Marty, like so many other pioneers during this time, made tremendous contributions to this sport that could be so unforgiving. We honor them in our memories.
Six months after Marty’s passing, with the blessings of the Alameda Family, Jean-Michel created Pacific Windcraft which later became Pacific Airwave. The ensuing ten-year period was a labor of love and creativity for Jean-Michel, as he designed and manufactured a series of hang gliders that were sold and flown the world over, including the Vision, Esprit, Eclipse, Mark IV, Pulse, the Magic Kiss / K Series, Double Vision and the Formula, each in a variety of size ranges, which covered the needs of the market from tandem pilots to 5’2” lady pilots. The goal was always to make hang gliders that were sexy but still fun to fly!
He also, during this time, co-created 2 wonderful children: his daughter Colette (‘84) and son Pierre (‘87), who have inherited their father’s sense of curiosity and social charisma. Like her father, Colette was impatient to arrive, and was born 3 weeks before her due date. The weekend when she made her grand appearance in California, Jean-Michel was 3,000 miles away, conducting ultralight demo workshops with Gerard Thevenot at Kitty Hawk Kites, Nags Head, North Carolina. Since this was before cell phones, Jean-Michel’s wife, Natalie, called Francis Rogallo in the middle of the night and asked him to let Jean-Michel know he was the daddy of a beautiful baby girl!
Jean-Michel made many friends and collaborated with pilots and designers from around the world. The team he assembled at Pacific Airwave – from the sail makers, assemblers, test pilots, and shipping clerks – were exceptionally good at their jobs and helped translate Jean-Michel’s design ideas into gorgeous wings. This powerful team included the charismatic Ken Brown and his beloved wife, Julann, who took over the reins of the company when Jean-Michel eventually stepped down to take on new design challenges in the marine industry. Those PacAir years were really special times in the growth of the sport of hang gliding, as performance and safety continued to increase, making the dream of flight accessible to more people than ever before.
In 1995, Jean-Michel had the honor of being inducted into the US Space Foundation and Nasa’s Space Technology Hall of Fame. His name appears alongside pioneering giants Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, and other bold leaders who, through their passions and labors of love developed this incredible sport. Now, almost 25 years later, his name is once again being honored, this time in the highly esteemed Rogallo Foundation’s Hall of Fame for his design contributions which built upon the breakthrough flexwing design created by Francis and Gertrude some 70 years ago.
This award reminds us all how progress is made – designers acting on their creative insights, and others coming along and contributing their own improvements, both incremental and grand. We stand on the shoulders of giants, who stood on the shoulders of giants in the eternal quest for experiencing free flight. We honor these individuals’ creativity, sacrifices, and obsessions which has made such a difference to the sport, and brought the thrill of free flight to so many.