The Wings of Wasserkuppe
A Brief history of Rhön
Mountains Motorless Flight
by Glen Griffitts
© 2004-Glen L. Griffitts
all rights reserved
|According to geologists,
Wasserkuppe, the highest mountain in the Rhön range at 950
meters (3,115 ft.) was created about 20 million years ago by a series
of volcanic eruptions. Archeological evidence indicate settlements
in the Rhön mountains date to 800 AD. Mountains along the Rhön
ridge, including Wasserkuppe, were once covered by a thick forest.
During the 15th and 16th centuries the old growth beech trees on
the north and west slopes of Wasserkuppe were harvested for the
production of charcoal. The remaining flora provided excellent pasture
lands for sheep farming. The hilltops were never reforested resulting
in the green picturesque open spaces seen today.
The first building
on Wasserkuppe was a small hut intended to shelter hunters and
hikers from the harsh weather. It was constructed on June 2, 1879
by the Rhönklub, a nature-hiking association. Karl Song of
Poppenhausen opened the first restaurant in 1884 and operated
it during the summer months. Because there were no improved roads
at that time, access to the restaurant was by narrow nature trails.
||In 1909 Engineer Oscar
Ursinus of Frankfurt formed a team to promote the application of
motorless flight. This team, mostly technical high school teenagers,
studied early Otto Lilienthal theory and his bold experiments. After
fabricating a glider of their own design they transported it to
Rhön for trials. Oscar Ursinus became the first person to successfully
fly a glider from the cliffs of Wasserkuppe.
|But the genesis of gliding
actually dates to Leonardo da Vinci (1486-1513) who made notes of
his studies of birds, airflow and streamlined shapes (aerodynamics).
Unfortunately, after his death, his research lay dormant for nearly
flight waited until the nineteenth century. Otto and Gustav Lilienthal,
German engineers, began to research and experiment with flying machines
near Berlin in 1881. They speculated that mastery of flight should
be first demonstrated in gliders. Lilienthal's contemporaries considered
such experiments foolhardy and the brothers' work was often derided.
However, other scientists followed the research with great interest,
including S. P. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute
in Washington, D.C.
|Otto built eighteen
prototype airplanes over a period of five years. His first model
was nothing more than wings strapped to his arms. Most of the subsequent
models were primitive hang gliders that he steered by shifting his
weight back and forth and from side to side. Among his failed flying
machines was one with flapping wings driven by a motor. Otto finally
succeeded in a gliding flight in 1892 by jumping from a small tower
and launching into a light breeze. He sailed 80 feet. By reason
of his documented research and experimentation, he became internationally
recognized as a great theoretician of aerodynamics. The Wright brothers
would later credit the Lilienthals for inspiring them to develop
their powered flying machines. Lilienthal's standard glider model
#11 now hangs in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in
Otto Lilienthal is
also known for two quotes about his work, "To invent an airplane
is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly is everything."
The second quote was prophetic: Speaking of the hazards of flying
he said, "Sacrifices must be made." Otto crashed one
of his gliders on August 9, 1896 and died the following day from
his injuries. Otto's brother, Gustav, then in his eighties, was
in attendance when Oscar Ursinus successfully launched the first
glider from Wasserkuppe in 1909.
The foundation laid
by Lilienthal and Ursinus was advanced by Darmstadt Technical
Institute's tests at Wasserkuppe in July 22, 1912 when a new record
for time aloft and distance was established by pilot Hans Gutermuth
who flew the F.S.V. X. glider for one minute fifty-two seconds
covering a distance of 840 meters. A replica of that plane, built
by Otto Becker's team is now on display in the Glider Museum at
Soon other technical
schools began experimenting and other flying enthusiasts organized
glider clubs. The early planes were often built with any light
weight wood and fabric material at hand. Public interest spread
as new teams worked to refine the previous designs. As a result,
records for time and distance were short lived as soaring technology
The onset of World
War I brought a suspension to the glider record race as national
research and development became focused on Germany's war time
priorities. After the war, the Treaty of Versailles placed prohibitions
on building war planes in Germany. Perhaps by oversight, the treaty
did not specifically prohibit the building of "motorless
flying machines" and gliders soon returned to the skies above
the Rhön mountains. Wasserkuppe was now recognized as being
the ideal location, possessing excellent launching conditions
as well as optimum air currents for soaring.
Organized by Oscar
Ursinus, the first Wasserkuppe glider competition was held in
1920. Over the next decade, the contest grew in popularity. As
many as 70 glider clubs sent their best planes and pilots to compete
for duration, altitude and distance prizes, the most coveted prize
was that donated by President von Hindenburg. As many as 60,000
spectators dotted the mountain slopes to watch these events.
On August 9, 1920,
exactly 24 years after Otto Lilienthal's death, a glider piloted
by Eugene von Loessl plunged from an altitude of 150 meters and
crashed on the west slope of Wasserkuppe. Von Loessl, a resident
of Darmstadt, was the first pilot to die on the mountain.
||Several techniques were
utilized to launch the gliders. A short narrow gauge trolley track
was laid near the summit on which gliders could be pulled along
into the wind. Others were launched by men pulling ropes fastened
to the fuselage as they ran downhill into a breeze. Another method
was to attach long elastic ropes to the nose. While the plane was
restrained by a number of men holding onto the tail section, the
ropes were stretched and attached to a fixed anchor. The hold back
team then released the plane and it was catapulted into the air.
After the glider was airborne, the pilot disengaged the rope freeing
him to soar with the winds. Later gliders were towed by powered
aircraft and released at altitude.
A very efficient launch
system involved a powered winch mounted on the bed of a truck.
This method took advantage of air speed as well as natural updrafts.
The truck was parked on a ridge and a 1,500 ft. cable was strung
across a valley and attached to a waiting glider. When the winch
became engaged, reeling in the cable at increasing speed, the
glider quickly became airborne. The pilot climbed at a steep angle
and at the apex, the cable was automatically released and the
plane set free.
According to a New
York Times article dated Aug. 22, 1922, "A glider was shoved
from a precipitous cliff at Mount Wasserkuppe. The airplane, called
Vampire, was immediately wafted upward 100 meters at which altitude
Hentzen, a student of Hanover Technical School, hovered and cruised
for several minutes before he climbed another hundred meters."
Hentzen remained aloft two hours ten seconds and landed at a designated
spot ten kilometers from Wasserkuppe. Many records were broken
that day. Nearly all of the participating gliders were the creations
of technical high school students from various parts of Germany.
Despite their youth, the majority were veteran aviators of WW
I. The winner of the competition received a prize of 12,000 Marks,
which according to the 1922 exchange rate, equaled US $9.00 .
The first American
pilot to fly at Wasserkuppe was Edmund Allen, a wealthy New Yorker.
. Sponsored by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he left
a glider competition in Paris on August 22, 1922 for the Wasserkuppe
contest to compete with the world's best glider pilots. However,
his performance there was unremarkable.
||Glider accidents on
August 29, 1923 prompted a naive New York Times reporter to write
this newspaper heading: "German Meeting of Motorless Planes
a Failure". He added: "At the glider meet on Wasserkuppe
in the Rhoen yesterday seven gliders crashed, destroying the high
hopes held for the success of this form of flying, in which Germans
had pioneered. The glider crashes were due to many new faulty constructions
as well as green glider pilots."
In 1923 a memorial
was erected at the Eugene von Loessl crash site. The bronze eagle
and tablet mounted atop a pile of rubble stone on the western
slopes of Wasserkuppe was the creation of Johannes Mossner, a
Munich architect. The bronze figure, cast in Hamburg, honors von
Loessl and other pioneers who lost their lives pursuing their
dream of powerless flight. Such was the status of pilots of that
time, the unveiling ceremony held on August 30, 1923 attracted
over 30,000 spectators. Beginning in the early morning hours,
the several passenger trains from Fulda to Gersfeld were filled
beyond capacity. Among the attending dignitaries were: the brother
of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prince Heinrich of Prussia, Frankfurt's
mayor, the widow of Baron von Richthofen (the Red Baron), various
government officials and several famous generals. The program
included regimental music and speeches by dignitaries followed
by the unveiling of the memorial. (The public interest and attendance
is remarkable considering the first improved road for motor vehicles
from Gersfeld to Wasserkuppe was not completed until the following
year.) Government officials proclaimed that there should be an
observance at the memorial site each August 30 in honor of all
fallen pilots. Indeed, annual ceremonies were held until the start
of WW II.
Four years after the
first glider competition was organized, Oscar Ursinus built the
first clubhouse. Until then, enthusiasts were using shipping containers
as temporary accommodation. Wasserkuppe had become a soaring mecca
and the annual contests were international events, attracting
pilots from all over Europe and the Americas.
conditions became very important. The collecting of weather information
began in 1922 and the official weather station was established
in 1925. Now called the "Ursinus-Haus", the station
is one of 500 such facilities across Germany providing reliable
The first glider school
was established by Fritz Stamer in 1925. Although the national
economy was racked by inflation and high unemployment, Stamer
managed to eke out a living by giving flight lessons and test
flying new gliders.
Virtually every European
aeronautical engineer of the time tested and modified their aircraft
there. Among them were Alexander Schleicher, Willy Messerschmitt,
Peter Riedel and Alexander Lippisch. The 1920's saw significant
achievements in design and technology, such as flying wings and
even rocket-powered flights.
Fritz von Opel had
performed a number of publicity stunts involving rocket-powered
cars for his Opel motor car company. Along with Friedrich Sander,
a pyrotechnics manufacturer and Max Valier, a rocketry advocate,
Opel concocted a scheme to attach two rockets to an Alexander
Lippisch designed tail-less glider. In the summer of 1928, the
three men brought the glider, called "Ente" to Wasserkuppe
and hired Fritz Stammer to test it.
Two black powder rockets
were attached to the skids on the underside of the fuselage. They
were to be electronically fired from a switch in the cockpit.
In order to adjust the center of gravity as the powder burned,
a counterweight system was positioned under the floor. The rockets
were timed to be fired one after the other to provide continuous
thrust. Each rocket was intended to burn for about thirty seconds.
After one false start, the rocket fired and the aircraft roared
across the grassy field and into the air. Stammer reached an altitude
of 1,500 meters (4,900 ft.), circled the mountain and landed safely.
On the second flight,
the team decided to fire both rockets simultaneously thereby doubling
the thrust for a 30 seconds burn. At the instant of launch, one
rocket fired, but the other one appeared to sputter and as the
plane left the ground, it exploded. The blast tore holes in both
wings and set them on fire. Amazingly, Stammer brought the burning
aircraft back to ground from an altitude of about 65 feet and
quickly abandoned it. The aircraft was a total loss, as was Fritz
von Opel's dream of rocket-powered gliders. Stamer continued testing
other glider prototypes and operated his flight school until 1933.
Lippisch went on to become an accomplished aircraft designer.
||Arguably, the greatest
and most popular of the German glider pilots was Günther Groenhoff
who set many world soaring records in distance, duration and altitude.
Many of his record setting flights originated at Wasserkuppe. His
first official long distance record was achieved in the summer of
1931 when he flew from Wasserkuppe to Magdeburg, a distance of 140
miles. Flying from Berlin's Templehof airport in a tail-less plane
he helped design, he attained a record setting speed of 90 mph.
His altitude mark of 7,000 feet was set during a flight from Munich
to Czechoslovakia. Not all flights were successful. During a 1931
flight from Jungfrau-Jock Mountain, high in the Swiss Alps, he lost
half of his plane's rudder, but skillfully flew it to a safe landing
on the valley floor 6,000 feet below.
|Groenhoff further demonstrated
his skill and courage while conducting research for a Munich meteorology
conference in May 1931. On a mission to gather weather data, he
installed various instruments on his Alexander Lippisch built "Fafnir"
model 272 glider and was towed to altitude by a powered aircraft
piloted by another famous pilot, Peter Reidel. As they approached
towering cumulus clouds over Munich, Groenhoff's Fafnir was released
to his fate. For the next eight hours, he was bounced and buffeted
around the thunderstorm amid lightning flashes, hail and torrential
rain, all the while collecting valuable information on weather conditions.
Many times he flew in the blind. His journal indicates that he experienced
one rapid descent in zero visibility to emerge from the cloud to
see the ground only a few hundred feet below. He managed to bank
and return to the front side of the thundercloud. He wrote, "as
soon as the storm reached me, some powerful force pulled the plane
straight up into the center of the clouds. It seemed to me as if
I were riding an express elevator of a high skyscraper."
After soaring with
the storm for eight hours, he had traveled 240 miles and finally
landed on a riverbed, coming to rest a few meters short of an
electric line near Kaaden, Czechoslovakia. Groenhoff wrote that
he was gratified that he was able to bring home "the rich
material for meteorological research."
Back at Wasserkuppe
on July 23, 1932, Groenhoff once again soared into the strong,
turbulent winds of a thunderstorm. However, his good fortune had
run out. The rudder of his beloved Fafnir snapped and he crashed
on the west slope, dying instantly. He was 23 years old.
||As the National Socialist
Party came to power in the 1930s, the glider school and talented
young fliers drew the attention of the Nazis who saw an opportunity
to utilize the planes, pilots and launching facilities at Wasserkuppe.
In 1933 the old Rhön-Rositten Club (a branch of the Hesse Flying
Club) was dissolved and the it's officers dismissed. The organization
re-emerged as the "German Air Sport Union" headed by Dr.
Oscar Ursinus as part of the Nazi system. All gliding activities,
including research and development, became controlled by the state.
As Germany made further
preparations for an inevitable war, Wasserkuppe became an official
training camp for the Nazi Youth Flight Corps. Exploiting a loop
hole in the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler did everything possible
to encourage glider flying. Funding for the program was subsidized
through the efforts of brown-shirted storm troopers who "urged"
German citizens to donate to "sport flying". It would
be an easy matter to transform the skilled, young glider aviators
into fighter and bomber pilots. Many of the technical school pilots
had built their own planes. They represented a body of trained
men who would be able to take leadership roles in airplane factories
in time of conflict.
|Larger permanent buildings
were required to meet the increasing demands of the Third Reich.
A headquarters building, barracks and support facilities were erected
east of the summit. Upon completion, the opening ceremony was held
during the annual glider competition on August 27, 1936, exactly
seven years after Groenhoff's death. Among the leading dignitaries
at the ceremony was Luftwaffe Lieutenant Colonel Mahnke. Following
the obligatory Nazi speeches, the headquarters building was christened
"Groenhoff Haus". The barracks, in the west wing, was
later named "Ring-Haus".
(Hall of Honor) was designed with a large stained glass window
and built directly the across the compound from the headquarters
building. Large bronze doors open to the interior of the hallowed
hall. A marble sculpture of a pilot dressed in a flight suit is
lying atop a sarcophagus. Although no one is actually buried there,
the figure is the likeness of aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal
and intended to represent all pilots who lost their lives in glider
and powered flight. This building was christened "Lilienthal-Haus"
on July 23, 1939.
By this time, the Wasserkuppe
Nazi Youth Flight Corps was operating at full capacity. Luftwaffe
personnel on site numbered over 40 instructors and support personnel.
During a 1943 allied air assault, Wasserkuppe suffered the loss
of twenty men killed and numerous casualties. All Nazi aircraft,
glider hangers and the flight operations center were destroyed.
Following the war,
the Groenhoff Haus complex was occupied by US Forces. A long range
radar station and surveillance facilities were established on
the summit of Wasserkuppe. During the Berlin Airlift of 1948 -1949,
the radar station supported "Gunpost", the air traffic
control site responsible for the southern air corridor from Frankfurt
to Berlin. This Wasserkuppe tech site provided navigation aid
for the transport aircraft. On June 10, 1949 the radar station
became attached to the 601st Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron,
headquartered at Rothwesten, near Kassel.
||On August 4, 1950 the
German Air Club was re-established in Gersfeld. Herr Wolf Hirth
was elected president and Fritz Stamer (noted test pilot of the
rocket powered glider) was named general secretary. Soon after the
restrictions on German aviation were lifted in 1951, gliders were
once again seen flying above the mountain.
A new glider school
was opened in 1953. The annual international glider competition
resumed in the mid 1950's. Once again, tourists began to visit
the mountain to enjoy the clean fresh air, spectacular vistas
and the graceful flights of the gliders. New tourist facilities
appeared on the mountain and tour buses became a common sight,
especially on summer weekends. In 1959 a new record was set when
Günter Heinzel, Director of the Wasserkuppe Gliding School
and former Luftwaffe test pilot, flew a glider from there to Paris
in eight and a half hours.
|The USAF radar facility
was expanded during the height of the cold war and weather proof
radar domes were constructed at the summit. The new German Air Force
began training there and assumed some of the air traffic control
responsibilities. After the fall of the Berlin wall and re-unification
of the two Germanys, the USAF radar facilities at Wasserkuppe were
deactivated and the complex was turned over to civilian authority.
Located near the former
front gate of the Groenhoff-Haus complex, a glider museum opened
in 1970. Astronaut Neil Armstrong was an honored guest at the
dedication. The museum moved into the present building in 1987.
The mountain also became home to the Old-timer Gliding Club, an
association of glider fans dedicated to the preservation of vintage
||A new generation of
aviators have emerged. Hang-gliders and parasails have had a significant
impact on the contemporary glider scene as Rhön's summer skies
have become dappled with brightly colored sails. Sadly, at least
for me, the new breed of fliers are now outnumbering traditional
glider pilots. With the help of the German Glider Museum and the
Old-Timer Glider Club, one can hope that future generations will
appreciate the courageous contributions and sacrifices made by Wasserkuppe's
pioneers of motorless flight.
© 2004-Glen L. Griffitts
all rights reserved Gunpost@aol.com
Fafnir~ A dragon of Norse mythology
Engineer Dr. Alexander W. Lippisch, (1892-1976) Designed the Ente (Duck)
tail-less glider that was retrofitted for the rocket powered flight
in 1928. His Fafnir glider was actually built on Wasserkuppe in 1930.
The cockpit was customized for Groenhoff who was small in stature. During
WW II, Lippisch went on to design a liquid fuel rocket- powered fighter
interceptor, the Messerschmitt Me-163 Komet. In January 1946 Lippisch
was brought to The United States as a part of Operation Paper Clip,
a War Department program. He subsequently designed the first delta wing
jet fighter, the F-102 Delta Dagger. He was credited with inventing
the hydrofoil boat, among his many accomplishments. Dr. Lippisch died
in Cedar Rapids, Iowa 11 February 1976.
Alexander W. Lippisch,
The New York Times archives, Gersfeld, Fulda and Rhön regional
newspapers, various periodicals and Internet web sites were the primary
sources for this article.
I wish to acknowledge Otto Becker of Poppenhausen, Germany, a member
of the Old-Timer Sail Plane Cub Wasserkuppe and the German Glider Museum
Wasserkuppe for his generous contribution of historical data and assistance
with German-English translation.
Some linkes to other web