Vintage Charmers

Visit Mountain Valley Airport and soar with the wood-and-fabric fans of the Vintage Sailplane Association.

Dashing in color and full of character, vintage sailplanes show up a nondescript modern white counterpart at a vintage meet-and-glide. (Chad Slattery)
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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.”

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