Riding The Thermal Currents

by Ernie Weatherall

Originally appeared in the THE STARS AND STRIPES Wednesday, June 1, 1960

(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 were built.

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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