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


Instrument Flying in Gliders


A comparison ... wartime skill at instrument flying under stress versus a standard of skill at instrument flying and navigation on instruments in gliders (pieces combined from other writings brought together ... the first section is from an article written so that those unfamiliar with gliding would understand ... then there is a section from the write-up - ‘This man’s War’...  and finally back to gliding)

First I need a rather long introduction. I am going to illustrate with gliding. Many people have the wrong idea about competitive or cross country gliding, particularly at National and International level. To fly a glider is easy. To get its best performance using the air or atmosphere in which it flies I found more demanding  than any of the Air Force flying I did - but let us exclude ops. Places I mention are in Australia.      

Comparisons are said to be odious but here goes. I feel the Air Force could have done better.

I move to gliding but some background first. Some countries e.g.. UK allow gliders to fly in cloud. Australia does not. Some of us, particularly ex WWII pilots were naughty and  we did.  We had primary instruments as a matter of course and at times used rather unreliable disposal A\Hs. In Australia the then Department of Civil Aviation  retained control of new models and accident investigation but control of actual flying and training was delegated to the Gliding Federation of Australia (and some financial help was given).  We thus had a very peculiar and interesting relationship  with the Departmental Examiners of Airmen (most of whom were ex- WWII) . They controlled the airports we sometimes used but not our flying training.  They knew we did at times cloud fly.  We knew they  knew and they knew we knew they knew. At times they flew with us as a sort of ‘good relationships’ thing and at times we had a sort of “in the bar” fellowship. In Queensland at least.

Once a year  there was a conference of about a dozen DCA officials and a dozen Gliding officials chaired by the Director-General of Civil Aviation where mutual problems etc. were discussed.  It was an extremely professional meeting. Australia had been chosen to host the World Contest in 1974. We wanted cloud flying for the contest so it was put to the D.G.  We asked for clearance to cloud fly for training purposes,  to obtain International Awards, and for Cross Country and Competition.

What followed next was very interesting. Without a pause the D.G. said, ‘I can’t see a problem with that.’ There was an immediate chorus of objection from his Examiners.  ‘Why?’ he asked.  The Examiners knew we did fly in cloud and obviously could. ‘We don’t think they could navigate in cloud’ said one. Again without a pause the D.G. came back - ‘Very well. The Gliding Federation will arrange a test to prove they can and when they are ready I’ll make my examiners available to make an assessment’.

What an interesting situation! I landed the job. My Club made its aircraft and facilities available and the test was planned. I had no trouble getting half a dozen ‘guinea pigs’. I ensured they had no power experience. Gliding experience varied from 60 to 500 hours.  If I can make a very subjective comparison this would compare with Air Force training etc. of 100 to 800 hours.  This comparison may seem strange but I will not elaborate. Deliberately chosen, one  had failed his Glider instructor training.

Eventually I will be comparing the end result of RAF learning to fly IF with glider pilots also learning IF.  So let me compare what is involved further. First, the aircraft.  I am talking about the performance glider, not the hang glider or ultra light. Equipment now involved here could be  oxygen equipment, radio, (parachutes) survival equipment, IF instrumentation was of course needed for the test. The glider could fly and did fly in conditions that had all light aircraft grounded.

The glider is easy to ‘pure fly’. The actual landing and touch down is easy except for one thing - there can be no second try. There is no cure for being too low on the approach. Roughly, the glider has a built in glide of a three foot per second loss which must be ‘counteracted’ by skill.

The power pilot (clear air or IF)  will tend towards set speed straight and level flight, hopefully in air with little turbulence. The glider pilot after performance will not fly at a constant speed, not at a fixed height, not on a fixed course. He will maintain his height or gain height most often by circling in a thermal of upward moving air. Let me illustrate with the extremes. 1. Calm dying day conditions where he could circle for maybe fifteen minutes and gain little height and slowly drift downwind to continually varying his turn in ‘no sink’ to  stay up. 2. At the other extreme I have had a day where I only bothered to take every third thermal - one turn and centred on 1000 fpm lift. The best I’ve had was 2000 fpm, to the other extreme where I have barked my shins in the uplifting turbulence.  So for the test the pilots could expect moderate turbulence with the need to vary their thermalling turns to stay centered. (Of course Cu Clouds provide good but turbulent lift, but the examiners, as we expected, when they came, said they had strict instructions not to enter cloud. A normal ‘hood’ would be used.)

The cross country or competition pilot  often does more detailed pilot navigation than his power counterpart.  He must be much more ground conscious. The ground surface often determines his lift areas and there is the possibility (unlikely at times - likely at other times)  that he will land out. He needs a safe area and should know where to walk to a phone and how to direct his retrieve crew.  Often he will use a four mile to the inch survey may to get enough detail.  Usually it will be stick-on plastic covered and  he will keep notes and make his marks with a chinograph pencil. At a certain level of experience he will time his climbs as these determine his optimum speed to fly. As a rough guide, as he gains experience what he records will increase - then drop off later as he develops his personal speed techniques and gains experience. So keeping a running flight plan on a map was pretty standard practice.

By the sixties the old P4 compass had been replaced with compasses that did not have the turning and acceleration errors - or almost so. The primary instruments were standard. The AHs were battery driven WWII disposals and often unreliable. One small help. Variation over Eastern Australia is 11degrees E and this varied little between Queensland and Victoria. It was possible to off-set the compass so it reads true. Almost. But deviation was a problem that had to be watched.

I now come to the absolutely critical difference. I remember from my Air Force training how everyone considered IF hard and unpleasant and unpopular. Many glider pilots actually wanted to cloud fly as a test of their skill as pilots, to gain the International Performance Awards which were a measure of their skill, (and in my club to try to beat that bloke Howland). They did know climbs in Cu clouds could be almost terrifying. One International Award required a gain in height of 5000 meters - 16404 feet and this was seldom possible in Australia in the clear. So let us move on to the test that was devised.

Their basic instrument training would of necessity involve a lot of turning flight. It involved course keeping, recovery from spins and unusual positions on primaries - all the usual IF training. They would need a wind. Wind is important to cross country glider pilots. There would be the official met report obtained by phone. Then actual ground observation before the flight. If necessary a check in the air. Drift over six minutes in a steady climb would give an acceptable wind for mid cloud level air. Observed cloud drift for, say, six minutes would give the wind at base. The examiners, when they came, would of course examine training methods and log books.

A test method was put to the Department and accepted. Two examiners arrived. One had glider experience. I converted the other - no problem with pilots of examiner experience. They flew together to check the hood. The test was to consist of about twenty flights half on primary, half with AH. Each flight was to last 15-25 minutes with two climbs and the associated straight flying. The pilots were expected to decide on their wind before going under the hood - to record what details on their map they wished during the flight. At the end of the test they would be expected to position themselves from their recorded information within one minute. Of course for the test the examiner flew for that minute while the testee stayed under the hood did his sums and marked his position on his map. Of course this bore little relation to real cloud navigation. It was simply a devised test to check ability to navigate.

I kept out of the way at this stage. I later learned the AH was playing up so they asked the examiners if they could do all the tests on primaries.  I know they didn’t realise what a shock this would have been to the examiners. But it does say something for the attitude to IF.

Result?  Mean error over the full run was just under one nautical mile. The examiners were amused when on one test the testee applied his wind backwards. Everyone is human. But seriously, I don’t think those tested realized how bloody good they were. If such results can be obtained with a group including a few who would probably not have made Air Force standard - I SUGGEST THE AIR FORCE COULD HAVE DONE BETTER. But let us now move to the Air Force. This extract is in italics.

I’ll move now to a very serious aspect and assessment of wartime flying and the pilots involved. At B.A.T. flight I continued to play around with reduced instrument flying.  I tried a number of under the hood takeoffs with turn and bank and either the ASI or the altimeter only. I needed to have done one previous flight in the particular aircraft to assess its individual ‘feel’ and of course I had as my safety pilot a pupil who would in a week or so be an instructor himself. I  had two reasons for doing this - one obviously was that I liked doing it. The other was more serious. It was of course as difficult a test as you could devise of instrument flying ability.

As part of  the training I gave my pupils on beam flying, I did go a little beyond the syllabus and give them a few minutes flying on the old basic panel - that is, T&B , altimeter and airspeed - the way they originally learned. As I expected none had any real trouble. They shouldn’t have had trouble. The chance often arose so that after they were settled on primaries I would lead the aircraft into actual cloud, then tell them - come out from under the hood now as we are actually in cloud. This they did and I had two pupils who within a minute completely lost control of the aircraft and there it was heading earthwards. They could not recover  so I had to. That was a shocking situation. It could be said that of all the hundreds of pilots I had found just two. Yes, two out of maybe six I did this too. It is a potentially frightening situation.

It can reasonably be assumed that the instructor intake did not come from the lower half of pilot ability. Where were most of the other pilots of this experience? Slogging it out in that hell over Germany at night. And they wouldn’t have a very competent instructor beside them , in daylight, in a situation where there was really nothing to worry about. There would be the confusion of the blackness of night, the searchlights, the night fighters, the anti-aircraft, the likely need for over the limit evasive action, and the possibility of severe aircraft damage. I have often wondered how many of our losses were due to, simply, pilot inexperience and lack of ability. One reason perhaps why the ‘better’ op jobs required the experience of a non-op tour first.

Anyway, what to do about the problem I felt I had uncovered? My ‘tests’ were completely unofficial and not part of the regular schedule. There was no way I could fit in extra instrument training. Anyway, that was not the problem. They could fly on instruments. The fault in my view was obviously lack of confidence in themselves or a sort of fear of real tough I..F.  The best I felt I could do was to demonstrate it was possible to go well beyond what they had been asked to do and for me to do it as a fun sort of thing - under the hood takeoffs on reduced primary as we took off for the normal exercises. The take off was not part of the normal beam exercise. One small point amused me. I allowed them to pick whether I had the ASI or the altimeter. I felt if they were a bit worried they gave me the ASI. If they wanted to test me they gave me the altimeter. I don’t know whether any of this was a help but as I have indicated I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

There was one follow on. The rotten dogs must have been talking about it in the mess.  One night the C.O. passed me and without pausing or altering his expression he said as he went by, ‘I’ve heard about you, Howland.” I took that to be “Permission to carry on but be careful”  The way of good old Upavon.

But now back to gliding ...

What followed after the test was both interesting and disappointing. The World body, after bad experiences in the previous World Comps in Yugoslavia ruled for no cloud flying in future contests. The Australian mood also changed. Younger pilots reached National Admin level and they tended not to favour Cloud Flying. The reason is not hard to find.  In contrast some ‘young bloods’ argued for cloud flying to be officially allowed in gliders with no DCA notification or permission. Of course DCA would never agree to this. So those of us who had the experience and the background to push cloud flying at top level backed off and the matter disappeared into history.

Final comment ...

Times change. Interest in cloud flying has not revived since I left the activity in the seventies.  But - where I would hand in my sealed barograph and camera for turning points they now hand in a sealed satellite navigation box which goes into the scorer’s computer and start, finish, turning points, score etc. are instantly available ... even a print out of the route covered (with turns shown) is possible. 

Progress continues. 


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