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 3 of 4)
Wayne Spani shares a hangar at Tehachapi with Sam Burton, and between them they own more than a dozen vintage gliders. “Every plane I own, I’ve rebuilt,” Spani says. “Starting with the wings. You’ll see old airplanes with intact D tubes [fuselages], but never the wings. They were glued with casein—milk glue—and once that gets wet it’s just food for microbes. During World War II, prisoners in German labor camps were forced to build troop gliders, and they’d pee in the glue to sabotage the joints. Building new ones is your safety factor. I guarantee you that if you’ve found an old wooden glider, you’re going to build new wings. You can use pieces from what you have, but you’re going to build new wings.”
Regardless of age, design, or materials used, all gliders must meet identical safety requirements, and be maintained according to standards set by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Restoring a vintage glider typically takes between 2,000 and 2,500 hours, and the materials can cost up to $3,000. Although prices of gliders are rising through the normal forces of supply and demand, nobody will ever make a profit trafficking in them. Whereas modern composite gliders start at $25,000 for simple designs and top out at $277,000 for Stemme S10VTs with motors for self-launching, vintage Schweizer TG-2s in recent years have gone for around $15,000 if airworthy, $5,000 if non-flying but restorable. Pressed to put a value on his 1947 Schweizer 1-21, one of only two in the world, Walter Cannon guesses $25,000.
One group of old sailplanes, however, prized today for both their aesthetics and their scarcity, fetches premium prices: gull wings—sailplanes with wings bent down slightly at about mid-span. Bob Gaines pegs the value of his 1935 Kirby Kite at $35,000 and his Kirby Petrel at $50,000. One Minimoa, a 1936 design widely considered the most beautiful glider ever made, was recently bought by Japanese collector Masayuki Honda for, as he told a fellow glider enthusiast, “the price of a nice Mercedes.”
Gull wings were developed in response to the discovery that rather than just sailing on the rising wind waves along mountains, pilots would go farther circling tightly on thermals—very compact rising columns of hot air. Famed German designer Alexander Lippisch incorporated gull wings in his 1930 Fafnir glider in hopes of improving visibility and increasing stability in turns. Lippisch theorized that in those turns, the inboard—“gulled”—segment would give proportionately more lift than a conventional straight wing. “It was just one of those intuitive ideas that really sounded great [but] doesn’t help that much at all,” says Byard.
Another sailplane prized for both rarity and beauty is the Bowlus Baby Albatross. Hawley Bowlus, who had supervised the building of Charles Lindbergh’s The Spirit of St. Louis, spent hours whittling wooden models to perfect the sailplane’s appearance, and weighed every piece of the prototype. An elegant pod made of bent plywood housed the pilot, a handful of instruments, and not much more; a five-inch aluminum tube connected the pod to the tail. The graceful elliptical wings had mahogany leading edges, and translucent fabric that showed the ribs beneath. The Baby Albatross first flew in 1938 and was an immediate hit, a combination of beautiful craftsmanship and, by the day’s standards, good handling qualities. In 1940, Don Stevens stunned the gliding world in his Bowlus, doing 83 consecutive loops over California’s Kern County Airport, an unofficial sailplane record.
In 1997, after searching for 10 years, Byard bought the 34th Albatross that Bowlus had made. “It was beautiful, and a piece of history, but it flew just terribly,” says Byard, noting that it was very unstable in pitch. The Albatross was also fragile. “I wasn’t getting much sleep on nights before I flew it,” he says. When a rope that was suspending the sailplane for storage slipped and sent it crashing to the hangar floor, Byard decided to completely rebuild it, a process that ultimately used parts from nine Albatrosses. “I improved the pitching problem by moving the all-flying stabilator hinge point forward and going to a larger elevator cable size,” Byard says. To shore up the airframe, he strengthened the wing spars with carbon fibers and the struts with steel cables. Unless you have calipers and a set of plans, you would not be able to detect the changes.
That kind of microscopic scrutiny would miss the bigger picture anyway, says Wayne Spani: “People who have never seen these might go to a museum and find them hanging from a ceiling or sitting on the ground, but you can’t appreciate sailplanes until you watch them spiraling upward on thermals, see the sun shining through the fabric wings, hear them whooshing by….”