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 4 of 4)
For the pilot, vintage sailplanes offer a vivid experience that just can’t be matched by modern counterparts. Cam Martin has logged extensive hours in both contemporary and old models, including his own classic 1964 Libelle, and he describes the differences this way: “If you hit a really booming thermal in an old plane, you’ll hear all kinds of really neat furniture noises; all that wood and doped fabric really talks to you,” he says. “The modern gliders have nice manners and don’t say anything. In a vintage glider you feel like you’re sitting on a hard porch swing. The fiberglass ships have a reclining contoured seat molded to your body—it has more in common with an astronaut’s couch than an airplane.”
In handling characteristics, Martin says, “they’re all from the same family. You push the stick forward and the nose does a predictable thing. But the vintage ones are a little smaller, a little wider, a little draggier. They’re not optimized for drag. They tend to have shorter wings, bigger ailerons, more effective rudders. Some people feel they’re pitchier—the nose is very responsive up and down, which means you have plenty of elevator. New ones are a little less responsive: the wings are longer and heavier—you tend to want more rudder effectiveness than you have. You always have more wing than rudder.”
Vintage glider pilots take pride in eking out victories over “glass” ships during competitions. Fronius recalls a memorable victory he won in September 2003 in his 1943 Laister-Kauffmann LK-I0A: “The Dust Devil Dash is a one-day, one-way, free-distance, old-fashioned kind of glider contest. Anyone can enter. Everyone takes off from Tehachapi and goes as far as they can. Wherever they land, they mail a postcard in, saying ‘I landed here.’ It’s a handicapped contest; your miles of distance are multiplied by your glider’s handicap. An old, low-performance glider can compete against a modern, high-performance glider fairly, depending on conditions, strategy, and of course good luck.
“There were 19 entries. Most people elected to go north. In reviewing the weather, going north looked difficult for a low-performance glider, and there’s a lack of good landing sites in the mountains. So I elected to go southeast, across the open Mojave Desert in the Antelope Valley. I struggled for 75 miles between 1,500 and 2,500 feet in small, weak thermals.”
Eventually he was able to cross the valley. “I worked my way into the San Bernardino Mountains and soon to 13,000 feet, ran east almost to Yucca Valley, and arrived at Desert Center at 6,500.”
From there, Fronius found a series of thermals that ultimately deposited him at Blythe Airport, along the California-Arizona border. The flight had lasted six hours and had covered 235 miles. Three other gliders had gone farther, but once the handicaps were calculated, his had a final score of 388 miles; the next best score, for a sleek ASH-25 made of carbon/aramid-fiber-reinforced plastic, was 351 miles. A 60-year-old wood-and-fabric antique had beaten a 1986 fiberglass world record holder.
On the evening of the third day at Tehachapi, as steaks smoke on the barbeque and the sky darkens, Fronius glances at his TG-2, pauses a second, then confides with a grin: “When you fly an old glider, you can never lose. If you do really well and beat the modern sailplanes, it must be because you’re a superior pilot. But if you get shot out of the sky, and land after 10 minutes because you made some really boneheaded mistake, and the glass ships had a great flight—it was only because they had a superior aircraft. It had nothing to do with your piloting."