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I first got aloft on a wire and a prayer

A Kookaburra glider at Camden Aerodrome (Southern Cross Gliding Club)

Sydneysider: A personal journey

The first time I ever took to the air was in a sailplane. It was sometime between 1956 and 1958 when I was seven or eight. The flight was over Camden Aerodrome and it lasted a whole thrilling 10 minutes.

My father was an early member of the Southern Cross Gliding Club. In 1944, he’d returned from flying fighters with the RAAF in Europe a very sick man. He’d contracted tuberculosis in the UK and it had rotted a section of his lower spine. It had to be rebuilt in a radical operation after which he spent three years flat on his back in a plaster cast. After that, for some years, he had to wear a Taylor Brace – a gadget that extended from a heavy padded belt to above the shoulders from where shoulder straps held his torso rigid against two curved, leather covered, spring steel straps that supported the spine.

You can’t keep a keen pilot down, however, and dad was always looking for a way to get back in the air. Sometime in the early 50s he went out to Camden aerodrome to look at a new home-built aircraft and ran into some people from the Southern Cross Gliding Club who persuaded him to join.

It turned out that one of the club’s principals, a man called Harry Ryan, lived only five minutes walk from our Strathfield home, and he was building a Grunau glider in his garage. I remember going around there with dad to watch the project unfold.

In 1955, with small personal loans, and by running raffles, the club managed to get together £750 to buy the Kookaburra in which I first went aloft. The aircraft was designed and built by a German immigrant, Edmund Schneider, in South Australia. Schneider came to Australia with quite a reputation, having manufactured sailplanes in Germany before and during the war, and before long he was offering several different designs.

There was no suitable trailer on which it could be delivered from South Australia, so it was aero-towed over by a venerable Tiger Moth biplane in what was then the longest aero-tow ever undertaken in Australia. One of the two glider pilots, Ron Sharp, went on to become the designer and builder of the Opera House organ.

On weekends when dad was flying, we’d get up very early and drive to Camden, which had been a training airfield during the war.

Towing gliders aloft using a tow-plane was beyond the club’s means, so they were winching the gliders up using a double drum winch, powered by an old truck engine, located at the up-wind end of the strip. The glider was positioned right down the other end of the runway. The glider was hooked up to the winch cables (each a single strand of high-grade fencing wire) with a release hook operated by the pilot. When all was ready, the assistants holding the tips of the glider’s wings would waggle them to signal the winch operator to start reeling in the cable.

My father reckoned that winch operating was a finer art than flying. The operator sat in a chain link cage (in case the wire snapped and lashed back) and he had to keep the speed up to about 45mph (72 km/h). With the glider hurtling along the runway, the pilot would pull back on the stick and take it up, typically to about 1000 feet, and pull the release ring to drop the wire, which fell to earth under a little parachute, still being winched in. Just in case the release mechanism failed, back down at the winch, the wire ran over a wooden chopping block, and a man with an axe was always on hand to cut the wire, after which the glider would have to come in trailing a a few hundred feet of fencing wire. It was with this wire-and-a-prayer technique that I got aloft.

The thing about the tow launch that I remember was that the rate of climb before we dropped the wire was extraordinary. And then there was just the sweet silence of powerless flight and a wonderful view over the fields and scattered woodland. The Kookaburra had been designed as a training plane with seats located one behind the other, but offset to either side of the plane so that the person in the rear seat got a good view forward. In no time at all, the experience was over. Ideally, glider pilots try to locate a thermal – a column of upward-moving warm air – to take them higher, but extending your flight beyond 15 minutes was regarded as poor form because down on the ground there were always other club members waiting to go up!

In his history of the Southern Cross Gliding Club (you can read it on the web) John Postlethwaite reckons there was a “slap-happy approach to flying”. In early 1959, both the club secretary, Mike Taylor and Harry Ryan were killed in separate accidents. Safety standards were indeed pretty lax. One day, emerging from a dry creek-bed at the end of the runway which I’d been exploring, I nearly had my head knocked off by a landing glider.

While dad was still with the Club, I witnessed one of the test flights of the “Twin Plank”, a tail-less “flying wing” glider designed and manufactured by Glidair Sailplanes at Bankstown Airport. Alas, it was a design innovation without a future and it now now resides in the Powerhouse Museum.

Dad became an instructor with the club, but landing gliders, and getting into and out of them, badly shook up his back and hip and brought about a return of tuberculosis. They put him back in Concord repatriation hospital and mum vetoed any return to flying until us kids had grown up and left home. And that was how it was.

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