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


  Night Flying


We were a new Club. 1958.  NSW North Coast area. There was a group of us without gliding experience setting things up. It took a time - two years in fact. None of us had had any gliding experience. Only one has seen a glider. We had not talked to any gliding people. We had read some books though. And we did gather a nucleus of quite experienced wartime pilots - four of us, two of whom had been Air Force instructors.

Came the time to start flying. We had a terrible strip to winch from just inland from Mooloolaba. After a weekend at Armidale with their gliding club, we were under way. The very early days make another story. But we did get going safely.

All Club members wanted to fly so it was circuit after circuit. By ten each day the sea breeze started and in any case, as we were under the airline flight path we were restricted to 2000 feet. Not that we got to that height really. We simply did not know how to soar. We did spend some time at Oakey (and later Kingaroy) chasing better soaring conditions but the trouble was - we did not know how to thermal. In retrospect it is surprising how long we took to learn. From my log book I note that I had completed almost 1000 launches (almost entirely short circuit instructional flights) before I could write - April 26 1959  1 hour 50. Solo. To 5250 feet. Longest and highest Club flight to date. So what did we do instead of soaring?

We did aerobatics. Loops and chandelles. That is, if we could get 1000 feet. No rolls - gliders structurally did not like rolls. We did streamer cutting. A length of toilet paper would be thrown out and the test was to see how many separate times it could be hit or cut with a wing on the way down. The trees round the strip naturally became festooned with the stuff - probably to the wonderment of later visitors.

So I thought - Why not try some night flying?  I had liked night flying. It could be night flying circuit and bumps as the Air Force expression goes. So the planning began. Mooloolaba was unsuitable but there was an electric flare path at Oakey. Maybe they would let us use that. First step was to prepare a training schedule. I followed strict Air Force methods. Suitable instrumentation. Yes, we had that. Turn and bank  and even an artificial horizon . Suction was by both the external fitting as per light power, and from battery. We were giving instrument flying training - and that was a necessary pre-requisite for safe night flying in any case. Navigation lights? That proved easy. ANOs required gliders flying at night to show a red light in all directions - not the normal red and greens. To retain night vision (once established) there would be a complete blackout at the launch point except for the standard red when required. We could arrange a suitable light signal to the winch driver to replace the daytime wing waggle.  

With all preparations ready and a detailed training schedule available for inspection we approached the Department of Civil Aviation. To operate by day from licensed aerodromes we had had previous contact and in fact, had established a good rapport with the Examiners of Airmen we had to deal with. They were all ex RAAF Flying Instructor School Staff Instructors. So was I.  No problem, they said, provided we had Gliding Federation clearance. They said OK so we were on our way.

So it was December 12 1959 at Oakey. Bright moonlight - would have been foolish to have the first try with anything but a good moon.  Daphne did most of the winching. She had no trouble. It was sixteen years since I had night flown in wartime England . Everything went well. First circuit was a solo test of course. I included a stall.  Later on another circuit I tried a spin. There were pupils under instruction on the other flights. Yes, we would consider doing it all again.

At this time we were still based on the coast with only occasional weekends inland. The flies worried us at Oakey. We tried Kingaroy and found it better. We shifted our inland weekends to there and it eventually became our permanent base. Goodbye Moolabah and unfortunately quite a few members who would not make the trip. We still had a lot to learn about soaring and had not broken into cross country flying.            

About six weeks after our first night flying session we tried it again - this time at Kingaroy. No electric flare path there. We had to lay a flare path with the kerosene flares. A long time since I had done that job in England , then, as duty (night) instructor. At Kingaroy there was an on-site DCA groundsman. Apparently we put his nose out of joint a little. If a flare path was needed for power aircraft he had to get permission from Brisbane to lay it. All we had to do was inform Brisbane and also the groundsman. He didn’t quite approve of the extra freedom we had.       

January 30 1960 and our second run. This time I selected a dark night - no moon, and there was a slight haze so that there was no horizon. Thus we had a real test for night flying. Daphne on the winch again and as before, again an uneventful night. Because of the strictly enforced procedures it turned out our flight turn-round was better than by day. About fifteen minutes per circuit I believe. We had some members who were anxious to actually develop night flying skills and others who simply  wanted the unusual experience. Of course quite a few club members showed no interest at all. We tried to work it that all who crewed got a flight. This had one interesting follow-on.

One of our long time members was Dennis Wengert. He arrived from Nambour this second night just after we had started flying. He had with him a teacher from Mapleton, a Freda Pack, who was later to become his wife. She helped with the running and later both Dennis and Freda insisted on her right to a flight. It was explained it would be better if she waited until the next day by which time she could actually see a glider before she flew in one. In the total darkness we maintained she was able to see little. No - she wanted to fly and fly she did. She did join the club and undertook some ‘daylight’ instruction as per norm, but she attended a number of night runs and had other flights - at her level of skill, basically as joy flights. She was to recall many years later how she loved the chandelles where the stars seemed to do strange things.

Under certain wind conditions a glider will land well away from the hanger necessitating a long tow back at the end. At times, to avoid this tow the last flight is made ‘the hanger flight’ where the glider may does a long glide down the length of the strip so as to finish near the hanger. This can be an interesting and sought after  flight - a little out of the ordinary. The same can occur at night. A fast approach and a glide of about 50 feet just off the ground. A suitable reward for the winch driver who may have done all the winching up to then - yes, Daphne. She rarely takes flights. She caused some amusement one night.  She had watched the flares float by one after another, she being only a few feet above them and to the side. After the flight she remarked - ‘I love flying low and slow at night’.

We flew eight night flying sessions totaling over one hundred launches. In mid 1960 we were assisting a group at Evans Head who were trying to start a club. We took our Kookaburra to Evans Head one weekend and flew from the old wartime strip. Of course it was mainly passenger flights for interested locals. They had heard about our night flying and of all things wanted us to do just that. I didn’t quite jump at the suggestion - it was hardly the normal introduction to gliding - but when they persisted I was not too hard to persuade. It turned out to be our busiest night - thirteen circuits in all by which time the kerosene flares were about out of kerosene. We had to be a little careful walking round beside the strip. There were a number of snake holes.

But taking the story back to Kingaroy. We had previously had negotiations with the Examiners of Airmen concerning permission to use Kingaroy. That was official and formal. Obviously permission had been granted but apart from that clearance we operated as our own bosses under the procedures laid down by the Gliding Federation of Australia . I had negotiated with one examiner - Clarry Hibbert - over permission to use the night flying facilities - the electric flare path at Oakey and the kerosene flares at Kingaroy.  We invited him to come night flying - as our guest. He arrived in the afternoon and saw us preparing for the night. There was the checking and retying of all of the joins in the launch cable. Standard practice even for day flying. He was there when we laid out the flare path.  Of course a small power aircraft would not really need a 5000 foot flare path. We did, in case we had a cable break and had to land straight ahead. Cable break training was a normal exercise all glider pilots did before going solo. Cable breaks are not uncommon and not a real worry. But at night for a landing straight ahead flares would be needed. When Clarry saw the flare path we laid out he remarked - “You’re stretching it a bit aren’t you?’ After his first flight with me he remarked ‘I take back what I said. Maybe you could lay a few more’.  Obviously he enjoyed his night flying as I notice from my log book he did four flights that night.

June 28 1960. By now we had learned a little more about soaring and cross country flying. That was the real interest for a glider pilot. We did our last night flying. One ab initio had gone solo. It had been an interesting exercise and night flying in gliders is rare in the extreme. Rare anywhere in the world and it was, I believe, the only time in Australia formal night flying training had been done here. Could it have had any practical (by that I mean gliding) use? Maybe.

On a good thermal day it was possible to stay up until after dark. It certainly was possible on wave days. Thus a flight could be prolonged if there was much point in that. It did need, for a flare path landing, previous preparation and permission. That could not always be relied upon. From above 12000 feet when daylight has almost faded, it is quite dark on the ground. If caught out - car headlights rather than a flare path. There would seldom be the advantage of simply switching on an electric flare path. There could be that late final glide. It is quite possible to catch the last thermal at sunset and glide (or stay up) for another hour.

Deliberate soaring from a night launch would probably require an aero tow rather than a winch launch. Again, wave flying. Maybe deliberate night therma
ling near the coast or frontal edge flying. I have observed beautiful midnight Cu clouds along the coastal area when driving along the Blackall Range . Yes, some possibilities - but they are almost certain to remain just that - possibilities.


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