Visit Mountain Valley Airport and soar with the wood-and-fabric fans of the Vintage Sailplane Association.
- By Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, March 2005
(Page 2 of 4)
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.
Most in the vintage sailplane community have known one another for years, often having met at Tehachapi. Pilots of both modern and vintage sailplanes are drawn to the airport because of its proximity to California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, one of the world’s best wave makers. Steady winds sweeping up and over the towering peaks generate ideal conditions for extended soaring; sunlight reflecting off the valley’s angled slopes creates pockets of thermals that pilots can ride like elevators and use to hopscotch over to the Sierras.
Even so, sailplane pilots spend endless stretches of time waiting together in hangars for weather that will sustain prolonged soaring. “You spend more time talking about flying than flying,” says Fronius. “You spend time trailering the glider, assembling it, then cleaning it, and then you might actually fly it, just to prove it can fly. Then you put it away, and then you talk about the flight you had five years ago. And you talk about the record your plane set in 1942. We could have a whole vintage meet and if the wind didn’t blow and we couldn’t fly, we’d be just about as happy.”
Talk at the glide-in turns to the differences between vintage and modern craft. A curious picture emerges. This is an aviation subculture that does not value improvements in performance or engineering breakthroughs or new materials in its aircraft. So what draws these pilots to technologies that are half a century old?
For one thing, they admire designs that are simpler and more artful, even idiosyncratic. And they all cite a love of history. They can recount minutiae about manufacturers, model lineages, design changes, record flights, and, especially, their own airplanes’ provenance.
They can also explain the role gliders played in the development of aviation. Designers have long relied on experiences with unpowered airplanes when developing powered versions. The Wright brothers flew gliders for four years before attempting flight in a powered craft. Later experimental aircraft were designed for glider landings, and required glider expertise. Stan Smith, the National Soaring Champion of 1937, served as the chief project engineer for the early-1950s X-2 rocketplane, and when that craft was damaged in early unpowered landings, Smith figured out that shortening the landing skids would make the landings more manageable. Later research aircraft, the M2-F1 lifting body and the X-15, which also landed without engine power, were flight tested under the supervision of soaring altitude champion Paul Bikle.
Vintage-sailplane enthusiasts also take pleasure in the restorations that are inevitably necessary. Virtually every one of the hundred or so airworthy vintage gliders in the United States has been restored by its owner. “You can’t just go out and buy a vintage glider,” says Byard. “You have to scrounge bits and pieces and then build it up yourself.” All during the Tehachapi gathering, underneath a half-century-old Dittmar Condor suspended from the ceiling of Byard’s hangar, volunteers lead restoration workshops, and owners teach one another about materials, structures, paints, and finishes—and where to scrounge for parts. The good news: There’s no need to learn engines or avionics.