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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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.

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