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


Flying in World Competitions


(Prompted by after dinner speech - group with a flying but not a gliding background. I incorporate some of the writings I did at the time [1970] after my return. But first, some background to competitive flying in gliders at National and International level.)


Competitive gliding is not gently floating around the sky with little in the way of decision making. It is widely embracive of many aspects of flying - pre-flight preparation, weather assessment and knowledge, team work, accuracy of flying - and I could go on. Perhaps one example here. A power pilot accepts the bottom needle of his turn and bank as good enough. Not the competitive glider pilot. In the single seater cockpit a piece of wool about six inches long is fixed at its lower end to the outside of the canopy. This "string" reacts far quicker and more accurately to any slip or skid and the pilot does not have to have "his head in the cockpit" to see it.

Basically there are two main types of contests (1) speed round a task - up to 500km not being uncommon - probably three legs. (2) On a bad day distance within a prescribed area where a number to turning points are tasked and a pilot plans his route making his own selection from the list. With the speed task the pilot decides his own start time and is timed start to finish. Sixty to eighty aircraft often compete and in my time - roughly late sixties and early seventies there were two classes, standard where all aircraft  had to be within listed performance specifications - the chief being a wingspan of not exceeding 15 metres ; and an open class where there were no restrictions on design.

Thus the accent was on speed and simply staying up not really a consideration though that would of course come in on bad days and towards the end of the day. Ten seconds could win or lose a day and this involving maybe four hours on actual contest flying with maybe six hours in the air.

Gliders would be aerotowed off at thirty second intervals and the gate 'opened' after all had been launched. From his information given at briefing - weather etc.- his knowledge of the country to be flown over and taking into consideration his opponents the pilot would make his strategic and tactical decisions and he would be prepared to remake his decisions right throughout the flight. He would be in radio contact with his crew and of course anyone listening could hear him and maybe thus gain 'intelligence'. The experienced pilots did little radio talking and it became easy to recognise "important pilots' by their voice only. If a certain area was proving difficult the amount of chatter would increase. This could indicate a difficult area etc. etc.

Few power pilots know that in a GLIDE the weight does not affect the glide distance if the correct speed for the aircraft weight is flown. More weight- more speed but same distance . As speed was the consideration water ballast was just coming into use about 1970. A glider could carry maybe forty gallons in wing tanks. This could be dumped all or in part if conditions weakened and had to be dropped before landing. It was not considered fair to dump water on a glider just below. Of course weight affected the rate of climb in lift so use of water ballast brought in some very interesting decisions.

A course flown from say A to B was never a straight line. There would be constant deviations as the pilot considered terrain, weather, clouds, intelligence from other gliders, birds, smoke etc. Making it easy to get a little lost.

The competition pilot does not fly at a constant speed. At all times he flies at the speed that will get him the highest speed over the ground remembering that height lost in the process must be regained. A basic cycle could be considered as a climb plus a glide. The higher the rate of climb the faster the optimum speed when flying straight except that as the in between air has smaller vertical movements both up and down the speed has to be altered to be 'optimum' all the time. But it is often more complicated than that. He often bases his in-between speeds on what he expects his rate of climb to be in his NEXT thermal . Not much point in say a thousand foot a minute climb and a matching fast inter-thermal speed if that high speed has him in a paddock before he reaches his next thermal. Thus some very interesting decisions have to be made - all the time.

He must consider the possibility of an 'out' landing though with top pilots this is rare. He could again be circling in a thermal with up to twenty other gliders all trying to out climb each other - no not quite what that may seem - first pilot in a thermal sets the direction of turn which all others must follow. Final glides may be started on a  good day from fifty miles out with the drome not yet visible.

I'll now illustrate with two real pilots from my tine. One was a current RAAF Mirage instructor and the second a current International Airline pilot. Neither was good enough to win the top place. At Internationals each country can field up to four pilots and they do talk to each other in the air. Similarly at Australian Nationals pilots from the same club often converse for tactical reasons. The RAAF pilot happened to overshoot a turning point through faulty navigation. There was 'club talk' Came in a stranger voice as we all realised what had happened - 'Just as well we have a Navy'. And the Airline pilot who once arrived back about an hour later than he should have admitting he had used a valley about 20 degrees off course. Someone had a notice on the notice board that he had a compass for sale. Someone else penned underneath the notice -'Suit airline pilot'.

In Australia we flew our contests over open safe western country. Overseas some countries are very mountainous etc. etc. Thus Australian pilots tend to be more cautious than their overseas counterparts. However, I found we were their equal in the ability to stay up when the going was tough but we were nowhere near as fast as them.

Most countries used the technique where the crews stayed at the aerodrome unless needed for a retrieve. The Americans in Texas took their crews round with them with trailers, moving them along by radio. Some crew used racing drivers as tow car drivers and used speeds on up to 120mph. We decided they should know what they were doing but kept our car speeds to about 70mph.The Germans went their own way and learned a quick lesson on the first day, which, as it happened was a very hard flying day. In spite of how the following articles read top pilots are safe pilots. It is very very rare for a top competition pilot to have an accident. Flying accidents occur among pilots first trying competition and Nationals. At Marfa in spite of the impression the articles may give there  were no accidents and the sum total of damage was minor damage through out landings that was repaired in time to compete the next day.

The standard of flying required for success at Nationals and above is high in the extreme and the pilots that reach that level are, I again stress, very very safe pilots. But they can and do fly to very close limits. I found competition flying in gliders considerably more demanding that my wartime flying but there was one very important exception. In a glider contest no one was going to shoot at you.

Day 1 Met Conditions weak  Cloudbase 3000 Hell! Task - Free distance within prescribed area ( Area roughly with Amberley as centre - Tenterfield, Chinchilla  Proston, Tiaro. Hell! again.) No gate. We all headed off from our first thermal.  Most pilots headed west towards Van Horn to decide there which first turning appoint to pick.  The run to Van Horn was reasonable and at least this stretch was landable. Most of us then went on to Ardoin in preference to a low run over rugged mountains to the west.

The road from Ardoin skirts the rugged plateau of the Sierra Daiblo Mountains to the west, then winds through a valley before an open stretch to Ardoin.  To the east of track is flat unlandable country, and very isolated.  I had intended edging east over this but was attracted by a number of gliders marking thermals on track.  I found they were in no sink and I was then too low to alter my plan.

I got lower, and I called up Jan whom I could see below to have a place ready.  There were a dozen or so trailers spread along the valley.  Reply - 'You might be able to land towards the trailer,' in a tone that told me it would be better if I did not. I scratched away from three low points and finally cleared the valley when I could call 'Kangaroo 3 Roll Ardoin'

Near Ardoin I could hardly believe my ears.  Number 1 A. J. Smith, World Champion, was frantically calling his crew.  From the ground.  He rushed the 100 miles back to Marfa for a hopeless second try. He had lost the championship on the first day.

At Ardoin I decide to head back in the direction of base for a second turning point.  This time I eased over the desolate country and found the going better, but 3000 was far from comfortable and I could not afford to miss a thermal.  One pilot headed further east.  An Englishman on his radio 'I am down to 500 in no sink and there is just nowhere to land.' Then there was silence.  Half an hour later I heard the same pilot - 'I am now back near the saltpan.  I have just had the fright of my life.'

At Van Horn conditions weakened as the day drew on.  I met up with Bob Martin and we pair flew for a while along a mountain ridge.  Lift was barely 2 fpm.  I finally landed on the road having covered 190 miles and felt I had flown a good flight.  That night before we left the drome 260 was the best flight up.  A fantastic distance Bob and I thought. Next day we found the Poles had all flown over 300.To borrow from Kipling - We learned about gliding from that'

One pilot had to walk 28 miles after landing. Two German pilots were not found until an air search the next day. There were  a few cases of very minor damage all repaired for the next day's flying.

Obviously, World Comps was very serious flying - not for the faint hearted.

Day2  Towards the end of the original write-up - I watched the tantalising sight of a cloud develop into a storm-line just ahead with dust being carried up in a line on track just too far for me to reach.  Slowly I climbed; and at last I could reach it.  I went up to 6000 feet, flying straight, fast, along its edge.

The gap to the next cloud was wide and the air in between was dead.  I reached its edge with the altimeter reading 450 feet, and entered  gentle turbulence.  Five minutes 1ater with a very marginal landing area below I was still at 450 feet.  As the cloud above me developed into a storm the turbulence increase and I climbed to I200 feet.  Then I lost the lift and was back at 600 feet.  It became more turbulent now but again it was lift.  Obviously it was a narrow band but I dare not fly straight and risk losing it altogether.  Then came rain and my landing area below turned to a sea of water. Turbulence grew.  I had 80 mph on the clock on one side and I stalled violently three times on the opposite side of the turn.  But I was climbing.  At 2000 ft it eased and up I went to 6000.  I had to fly through the storm through a lighter gap through the rain at a place where cloudbase was a little higher.  I had the merest glimpse of a horizon and there was lightning on each side.  The crew on the road got shocks off the car radio.  When I got clear I had enough for final glide.  I could call 'Kangaroo 3 Go Home.' On landing my altimeter read 100 feet. In the  World Contest at Marfa Texas in 1970 cloud flying was not permitted and we did not carry blind flying instrumentation.

  A Note on the Aircraft I flew - The Libelle.

The Libelle was a German manufactured fibreglass glider. Wingspan 15 metres. Speed limiting divebrakes. Sealed gap between wing and ailerons. The climb and descent meter in the glider is called a variometer and is extremely sensitive. It is said it will respond to someone walking up a flight of stairs. It is compensated against  ‘stick thermals' that is it responds only to actual vertical air movement components. Oxygen can be carried - also radio. Blind flying instruments can be fitted (some countries allow cloud flying in gliders) Retractable undercarriage. That describes the Standard Class model. There is an Open Class model which has in addition a tail chute for landing and wing contour altering flaps - not drag flaps. The dive brakes are much more efficient than drag flaps. The pilot can thus alter the wing shape to suit his speed. The cockpit is a neat fit but the pilot can carry survival gear, a toilet bottle and of course a parachute which is compulsory in competition.

The Libelle

Yes, beautiful!!!


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