Riding The Thermal Currents
by Ernie Weatherall
Originally appeared in the THE STARS AND STRIPES Wednesday, June 1,
(I've altered the first paragrph to make more historical sense)
Near the border of East and West Germany, before the Berlin wall
came down, was the home of 601st Aircraft Control and Warning
Squadron. It was here that the Luftwaffe of World War II found
its wings. Forbidden to build warplanes by the Treaty of Versailles,
German youths learned the principles of flying with gliders. Powered
flight was easy to master by glider students when fighter planes
One of the young men who flew during those days now conducts
a school at Wasserkuppe. He is Gunter Heinzel, once a test pilot
for the Luftwaffe, but whose first love is soaring. He is one
of the top glider pilots in Germany. Last summer he flew his sailplane
from Wasserkuppe to Paris in less than nine hours. Heinzel explained
the philosophy that makes soaring enthusiasts. "Gliding is
like sail boating," he began. "A man cannot push buttons
to call upon power. Instead, he is completely alone. He is pitched
against nature with her unpredictable winds and air currents.
||When a man is airborne he has to depend entirely on himself. There
is no crew, no copilot or engine. He must call on his self-reliance,
character and nerve. That is why soaring will bring out the best
in him, or perhaps the worst."
Several airmen of the 601st have taken gliding lessons, but more
have just gone along for a ride in a two-seater sail plane for the
experience. Anyone making his first glider flight will be impressed
by one thing: Gliders are not as silent as they appear form the
ground. Gliders are really good little noisemakers. They produce
sounds from a soft swish to a scream, depending on the design and
speed. To glider aces like Heinzel, the cracking of the airframe
as it flexes under load, the snap and pop of the structure expanding
under temperature changes, the squeak and rattle of moving parts
all mean something. These aerodynamic sounds tell him his speed,
or whether he is encountering a lift producing thermal or updraft.
Sounds even guide the glider pilot as to his proper path through
the air. If he is slipping or skidding the sound tells him. The
personal bond between the pilot and plane is no more evident than
in soaring when the machine talks to him who knows how to listen.
To those who have never flown except with power, gliding seems
sort of a miracle. That a plane without an engine can soar miles
above the earth is almost unbelievable. "But men first flew
without power," Heinzel assures his worried passengers. "Nature
is supplying the power and she is just as dependable, when you
follow her rules, as man-made engines."
The flat plateau like mountain top is ideal for soaring. Although
some fans soar all year round, the season starts in April and
lasts until November. In the summer, the air space around Wasserkuppe
is like a lake filled with sailboats.
Each August, the International Glider Meet is held in the mountain.
On rare occasions, some of the sail planes have landed in the
nearby Soviet Zone buy mistake. Most of them have been released
after paying a fine.
Glider fans in the Communist East Germany have not been allowed
to fly near the zonal border since several soared to freedom a
few summers back.
One airman in the 601st summed up gliding this way: "I used
to think those guys were off their rockers flying those kites
until one gave me a ride last summer. Now, I can't wait until
I get my pilot's license."
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