WINDING NORTH OUT OF LOS ANGELES, THE ROAD to Tehachapi is the nation’s unofficial Aerospace Highway, linking some of aviation’s holiest technology shrines: Palmdale, birthplace of the B-2 and headquarters for Lockheed’s Skunk Works; Mojave, the world’s first commercial spaceport, thanks to Burt Rutan’s rocketship; and the Mecca of flight testing, Edwards Air Force Base. Doug Fronius, a Northrop Grumman engineer, has been to Edwards many times for flight test events, but today he zips past that exit and bears northwest, toward a mountain pass dotted with wind turbines. He is heading for a tiny, uncontrolled airstrip in Tehachapi. Today, Fronius, who has worked on sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles like the Global Hawk, is taking a giant aeronautical step backward.
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On this three-day Labor Day weekend, Mountain Valley Airport is hosting the annual rally of the Vintage Sailplane Association. Throughout the first day, light trucks arrive pulling trailers. About a hundred pilots and owners show up. By sunset, the field is covered with brightly colored aeronautical flivvers that are difficult to recognize and exasperating to spell: Weihes, Schleichers, Schweizers, Slingsby Zanonias, Baby Sedberghs, Dittmar Condors, Meises.
The wide range of manufacturers, designs, markings, and ages distinguishes vintage sailplanes from their modern fiberglass counterparts. “Nowadays they’re all painted white, they’re all teardrop shaped, they all have enclosed cockpits, and they all have long skinny wings with T-tails,” says old-glider enthusiast Jeff Byard. “We call them ‘G cubes’: Generic German Gliders.”
The vintage craft, on the other hand, have been crafted from traditional materials: wood, metal, doped fabric, and glue. “Back then, they didn’t have to worry about the sun’s effect on fiberglass or composites, so they just finished them to look pretty, either the natural wood or bright colors,” Byard observes.
The great variety here today is also due to the Vintage Sailplane Association’s relatively liberal definition of “vintage”: The group accepts all sailplanes produced through 1958, plus modern replicas of those models. (The European association has a stricter pre-World War II cutoff.) The VSA also accepts both sailplanes, which can stay up on air currents, and gliders, aircraft that simply fly down to a landing. The pilots at the rally use the terms interchangeably.
Most VSA members trace their infatuation with gliders back to the balsa models of their youth. Byard still has his first model, hanging in his Tehachapi hangar: “It’s a Thermic 50-X I made when I was 10. I remember running behind after I launched it and wishing either I could be small, or it could be big, so I could be in it. You’d spend days and days building these things for only a few seconds of flight. You learned a lot of patience.”
Four years later, soaring, and Byard, got a couple of boosts. The first was an article in the January 1967 National Geographic in which the writer recounted his experiences with soaring, complete with dramatic photographs and exultations over “airy escalators” and “wheeling hawks.” Just weeks later, on February 19, NBC aired Disney World’s “The Boy Who Flew With Condors,” a story about a teenager soaring above the Tehachapi mountains. “Both of them said that 14-year-olds can learn to fly gliders,” recalls Byard, “so I asked my parents if I could too.” His parents agreed, and he quickly earned his license. (So did plenty of others; the Soaring Society of America added almost 3,500 members that year, and Schweizer Aircraft’s soaring school in Elmira, New York, received over 1,000 letters in just three months.)
As the pilots at the rally assemble their craft, conversation starts and stops; there are snippets and long discourses on cumulus clouds, someone’s discovery of a rare part, a patching technique. The pace is unhurried.
The assembly of Fronius’ Schweizer TG-2, a design that debuted in 1938, illustrates how much work vintage sailplanes require. “The new ones have just one or two safety pins and take two people maybe 10 minutes to assemble,” says Fronius. “But on the TG-2 there are struts, jury struts, fairings, the vertical fin, the wings, and literally dozens of loose bolts, pins, nuts, and safety pins. You need a crew of three or four people working hard, and it still takes an hour minimum. This was designed for the military, when manpower was not an issue.”
Flying the sailplanes is also inherently social, requiring at least three people: someone to strap the pilot in and hook up the tow rope, a wing runner to sprint alongside the craft at takeoff, holding the wing level, and the tow plane pilot. Slingsby Grasshoppers, one of which Byard owns, were British trainers that were meant to be ground launched, and getting one into the air takes five crew members: a car driver to tow it, a wing runner, a ground observer, a pilot, and a flag man to signal the pilot to release the tow line.