Queensland Gliding

 in the 50's, 60's and 70's


Compiled by Kevin Rodda based on photos, notes, letters and log book entries provided by 

Max Howland, ex WWII pilot and instructor ... a pioneer of gliding in Queensland.


The Gliding Series


Competitive Gliding

Prepared from notes for an after dinner talk to the Aircrew Association (an association of mainly wartime aircrew) on my glider flying of the sixties and early seventies. 


In my previous talk I remarked that after my last op and Air Force flight I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I’m never going to fly again’. 

One Sunday in 1956 - I must have been a nuisance around the place - my wife said, ‘They’re forming a gliding club at Mooloolaba. Why don’t you go?’ She didn’t know what she was starting. Actually it started 20 years of intensely interesting family participation. Our daughter went solo, Daphne launched gliders, she acted as crew chief at National contents. More on that later.

At the meeting where I expected to meet people experienced with gliders an ex RAAF navigator was the only one who had even seen a glider- let alone fly in one. As for actual flying experience there was only ‘yours truly’. We ran raffles in Currie Street, dances at Kureelpa, and sharefarmed beans at Woombye. Two years after the meeting we started flying with four ex RAAF pilots two of whom had been instructors. The Department of Civil Aviation had just previously delegated authority over gliding training to a very embryonic Gliding Federation of Australia. But at that stage they could offer very little help - Get a copy of 1732A the Air Force manual of elementary instruction. At least we knew about that publication.

Two years later I would have expected even a pre-solo pupil to have some skill at soaring. At the beginning I had never seen a glider soared nor spoken to someone who could soar. Under these conditions I found teaching myself to soar more difficult than I had found IF on primaries.

So early the club turned to aerobatics and night flying as alternatives.. We flew winch launch night circuits (both moonlight and dark night) using the electric flare path at Oakey and kerosene flares at Kingaroy and Evans Head. Daphne usually acted as duty winch driver and this earned her the hanger flight - a low glide the length of the 5000 foot strip. She did not take to flying but her remark after the night glide caused some amusement. ‘I like flying low and slow at night’.

In  the first ten years I gave about 3500 instructional flights, mainly circuits, and flew competition and made flying safari holidays each Christmas May and August stretching from Mt Isa in a wide inland arc to Gawler just north of Adelaide. Daphne could launch me with the family car auto-tow if necessary.

Two pilots generally work together for such gliding holidays. I paired with a grazier’s daughter in her thirties who became one of the family. Thus for competitions I was lucky enough almost always to turn up with an all female crew. My wife, my daughter until she married and Marj. Women crew  better than men.  They don’t get on the grog at night, don’t chase females, and they are far more dedicated.  No one can be as dedicated as a wife who is interested in the sport. And women can clean and polish aircraft better than men. Insects that come up in the thermals, the rising currents of air we use, get stuck on the wings and have to be removed each day.

What sort of flying? I’ll come to competition itself shortly. There is no gliding licence. Pilots qualify for a series of International FAI awards. The lowest is a C which requires five minutes of actual soaring. It moves up to triple Diamond award (1) A flight of 300 kilometres - 189 miles, to a designated goal. I flew from Longreach to Wild Duck Creek south of McKinley, (2) A flight of 500 kilometres (311 miles). Mine was from Benalla to Narromine. (3) A gain of height of 5000metres (16404 feet) which I did in cloud on the Darling Downs. How did we in Australia with our superb flying conditions stack up internationally? My full diamond was No 1 on the Australian register but 412 on the International register.

The 1960s flying had been in gliders of wood and fabric though the Americans were using metal. About 1970 there was a technological breakthrough when the Germans introduced fibreglass and glide angles jumped into the thirties - an air performance increase of about 70%.

PERFORMANCE and my figures are probably not the latest. 

They are ...

How Far: Designated triangles of over 1000 klms. An ex Luftwaffa pilot flew quite a few such triangles (and larger) out of Alice Springs. Triangles of over 850 miles have been flown.

How Fast: Closed circuits at over 120 mph. On a good competition day we could have speeds 60 -80 mph. In 1999 a 500 klms out and return was flown in two hours using the Sierra wave in USA.

How Height: Climb terminated in mountain wave at 49000 feet. My best two climbs - one wave one cloud to about 24000 feet. One of these in USA.

Rate of Climb: From struggling in no sink and bad drift for over 15 minutes with no gain, to 300 to 600 fpm as good averages with my best ever of 2000 fpm in USA.

How Low: Club rules could require a junior pilot to have a paddock picked by 2000 and must land from 1000 to no limits in contests. I have got away twice from 500 feet once after drifting about 10 miles and once from 400 feet in USA.

The aeroplane rate of climb meter has its capacity capsule in the instrument. The matching glider instrument which is called a variometer has as a capacity a two little thermos flask. It is compensated either mechanically or electrically to remove all aircraft or stick influences - it shows what the air is actually doing. It will record a climb if you walk quickly up a flight of stairs, reacting to the change in atmospheric pressure. We usually fly with two. Parachutes are compulsory in contests.

A turn and bank is not accurate enough. A piece of wool is fixed at its lower end to the outside of the canopy and its reaction  to slip or skid is instantaneous - and no head in the cockpit. Five hour races with pilots selecting their own starting time - not flying together as in a car race- and contests won or lost by 10 seconds. Of course round the course many gliders do come together but at other times the sky seems  empty.

The distance an aircraft can glide ... I repeat GLIDE ... is independent of aircraft weight provided the correct speed is flown. The heavier the aircraft the higher the optimum glide speed. If conditions are good pilots carry water ballast in the wings ... maybe 40 gallons. This can be dumped if conditions weaken in whole or in part, and must be dropped before landing. It is considered bad form to drop water on a glider flying below. Of course weight affects the rate of climb and this results in interesting decision making ...  balancing lower rate of climb against faster optimum inter thermal speeds.

Let’s look at an actual competition

12 days with two days of practice. 10 days for contest with hopefully 8 contest days flown. Perhaps fifty hours of intense contest flying of from 5 to 8 hours a day. By the seventies almost all closed circuit flying averaging maybe  300 kilo tasks. A pilot thus appreciates a good crew chief. The crew under the chief would relieve the pilot of as much ground work as possible.

8.30 The task setting committee meets hears the met briefing etc. and decides the task for the day. Task setters can make or break a contest. In Australian contests The Dept. of Civil Aviation  supplied weather and other help free of charge. A well set task means about 80% would get back. It’s rare for everyone to get back.  I have flown on a day when no one got back. I was chairman of the task setting committee for the World Contest at Waikerie SA in 1974. Fingers crossed - we didn’t pull a blue and this was after the previous contest in Yugoslavia when task setting was a catastrophe.

9.00 Briefing in the hanger. Sometimes a WWII hanger. 70-80 pilots at tables and maybe 250 crew standing behind and to the sides. The contest director removes the covers and says NOT “The target for tonight is.- but “Gentlemen, the task for today is...’Then task briefing, met, launch order etc. are covered.

At the end of the briefing the crew leave to attend to their pilot’s aircraft. Inexperienced pilots rush off too while the experienced stay and do their detailed flight planning - courses, tracks, estimated speeds, times for legs etc.

On the strip - 80 gliders in four rows- half a dozen tugs. Launch order by lot on the first day then rotation to a decided pattern. Eskys with drinks and large umbrellas to shade cockpits.

15 minutes to launch.  Grid cleared of non essential  crew.  One launch every 30 seconds which means a launch or a tug landing every 15 seconds. I can’t remember a foul up at launching.

Aerotow following a set pattern to 2000 feet but a pilot can drop off earlier if he wishes. Many do as they fly through a thermal they like. On tow at about 400 I would test my radio. There was an official frequency for starting and finishing  and other frequencies for pilot-crew use. I would use my official number on one and a personal call sign to Daphne. Procedures were short.  I used kilo from VH-GUK. Me - Kilo testing. Daphne Kilo strength five, Me Kilo. End of test. Pilots and crew chiefs could recognize voices and in fact it paid to get to know the voices of the top pilots. Many pilots chattered on the radio and thereby gave away intelligence. Top pilots almost never initiated a call. Anything that was public knowledge could be broadcast and Daphne had to make judgements on this.  She would confirm my official start time when it went up on the board about 10 seconds after I had made the start.. If a pilot out landed he would phone in details - necessary for his crew to retrieve him Outlanding information thus went up on the board also as did the finish times. If it was someone whose performance I had to  put into my decision making Daphne may say “Debonie is down” or, especially if I made a latish start, often deliberately ) - “You have 20 minutes to beat Terry”. She had a busy day.  Crews with low performance base radio could ask her to broadcast a message for them. She would - sportsmanship was friendly.

Well, back to me before the start. After takeoff I could have decided not to start for maybe one and a half hours. There could be 80 gliders within 10 miles of the aerodrome - all required in this area to do left hand turns only. Still, this was the only relaxed part of the flying day.  On track first pilot into a thermal set the direction of turn for that thermal Any number of starts were permitted so we made false starts to draw in any “followers”. It also gave an opportunity to test the air on track. Starting was by radio permission after a request and involved  crossing a line at below 1000 metres. You would aim to cross the line at maximum speed then pull up using the excess speed, hopefully into a strong thermal with other thermals marked for you by those who had just started.

In still air there is an optimum speed to fly. In sinking air the speed is higher, in rising air it is lower than for straight flight. In a climb-glide cycle the fasted you climb the higher the straight inter thermal speed. This speeds varies slightly with air movement between thermals. Thus the contest pilot does not fly at a set speed. If a very fast climb indicates a very fast inter thermal speed for highest speed over the ground and the rate of loss of height on the glide means the pilot does not reach the next thermal he often works his cycle on the lift he expects to find in the NEXT thermal. All of this of course gives interesting decision making.

It is not quite as mentally complicated as it may seem. Speed information can be mathematically put on a speed-to-fly ring rotatable round the climb meter which helps with the mathematics but certainly does not remove the decision making. One gets the feel of it, or more correctly, a pilot develops his own technique for his speed flying. What really matters is the overall average speed or speed round the task. But normally we are talking of hours in the hundreds developing the personal pattern. I flew in a World contest with about 1400 hours of gliding.

If you’re lucky there are cloud streets and you can porpoise along through almost joining cores without turning for maybe 50 miles It is seldom that good and the pilot is working separated clouds or at times working so called “blue thermals” i.e. no clouds at all. But there is ground patterns, avoid irrigation areas, birds, trash, other gliders and if you are lucky,  dust devils.

Thus the fastest time between two points is seldom a straight line.  Sometimes deviations of up to 30 miles may be warranted. All of which makes navigation interesting.

Turning points were photographed as way of proof. At least after  wartime PRU I had no problem there. In the 1974 World contest we had 50 turning points to task from and each pilot had a card giving details of the turning point.

The most exhilarating part by far was the final glide. This could be initiated from maybe 40 miles out before the aerodrome was visible. Final glide theory is different. Oversimplified the optimum speed is related to the rate of climb when you leave the thermal rather than the earlier average rate of climb. The speed does not depend on the wind but the height needed certainly does. So you try to get a strong thermal for final glide. Should you go through a stronger one than the one you selected you could take the necessary extra height and so increase your speed from there in. Of course you must check and recheck the situation as you proceed. A miscalculation or air different from expected could mean the need  to take more height or hopefully, increase speed further. Map reading thus becomes detailed working usually from a 4 mile to 1 inch sheets. Then you can spot the aerodrome and you look low and hopeless relying only on your calculations As you get closer it looks worse until about 4 miles out a miracle happens. The drome seems to move the other way and it becomes obvious you’re OK. In theory the fastest speed would get you over the finish line at the end of the field at zero feet. Pilots invariably add in a safety margin. I used 300 feet. When it is obvious you’re right this surplus height can be converted to more speed. One mile out you call up ‘58 one mile’ there could be up to a dozen aircraft also on final glide. Lookout is critical and with gliders landing all over the strip you pick your spot and wait for your crew to arrive with the car. Then you’d probably stay in the seat with the canopy up as they towed you in drinking the beer they handed you.

Summary of my gliding experience

2,250 hours of which 500 was as an instructor.

340 cross country flights totaling 40,000 miles of which 32,000 were in the Libelle. 

2,000 miles per outlanding.


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