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
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.
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.
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.
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….”
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."