"Papa couldn't drive a nail," says Ernie, "and he wasn't very sympathetic with our project. As a matter of fact, he didn't know about it. When he came home from the city, we always told him we'd been playing ball."
"Ernie really designed the glider," says Paul, who is a year younger and who later became the family's prize competitive sailplane pilot. "That was in '29. Ernie was 16 then, a senior in high school. I helped. Will was only 11, not old enough to do very much. Ernie was always the genius of the family. He used to win all the math and physics prizes in school, without cracking a book. He worked out the stress analyses on that first glider from some article he read. It was rudimentary but rather impressive just the same."
The most impressive thing was that it flew, or at least glided. A gang of neighborhood kids would launch it with an elastic shock cord, and off Ernie or Paul would go, gliding down the sloping meadow near their home. They seldom got higher than 10 feet off the ground, and although Paul once piled into a stone wall at the end of the field no one was ever hurt.
"That was because of Ernie, too," says Paul. "He always had a mania for safety. He was conservative, even as a kid. He built gliders that could take a real beating. I remember how stunned he was when he first heard of a major glider accident and learned the details. Dry rot in a balsa wood wing. 'How could anyone be so careless?' he said."
Today Ernie Schweizer is as intolerant as ever toward shoddy construction and design. A big, balding man, whose only outside interests are photography and fishing, he wanders through his factory with a slide rule in each hand, strewing pipe ashes everywhere, his shirttail hanging over the seat of his pants—and he still builds the world's safest gliders. In 1939, a few years after the two older brothers graduated from New York University with degrees in aeronautical engineering, they moved to Elmira. And that is where the Schweizers are now, in a little valley below Harris Hill, building sailplanes.
Ernie is the design man, the engineer. Paul, a bachelor who says he is married to soaring and that no one else will have him, handles most of the business details and acts as contact man with soaring enthusiasts all over the world. Will has three sons and a daughter who play golf and tennis and ski and argue heatedly year round over the relative merits of the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants; Will deals with the firms that subcontract to the Schweizers. It is a good team, and anyone who soars in America today is in their debt.
The Schweizer factory looks, at least to the uninitiated eye, like Boeing's Seattle bomber plant in miniature. At one end sailplanes begin in a hopeless welter of tubular steel and sheet aluminum and welding sparks. A few days later they emerge from the other end, glistening and dainty, ready to soar off into the skies over Texas and California and Canada and Pakistan.
There are about 300 employees at the plant, and they manage to sneak away from organized labor's most popular innovation, the legal coffee break, often enough to get an amazing amount of work done. Many of them went to work there during World War II, when the Schweizers built training sailplanes for the Army and Navy and subcontracted parts for the C-46 and C-82. After the war there was a slump when all the training sailplanes the Schweizers built came back to glut the market and haunt them, but in 1956 business began to pick up again. That year the factory turned out one sailplane a month. Today the plant produces two a week, half of them scheduled for civilian consumption, the rest to fulfill a foreign military contract. The Schweizers sell three production models: the 2-22, a trainer ($3,450 assembled, $2,675 in kit form); the 1-26, a single-place, all-metal sailplane ($3,395 assembled, $2,095 kit); and the high-performance 1-23 ($5,295 assembled). They are planning to go into production soon on a high-performance two-seater, which can be flown in competition by either one or two men and will also answer the growing demand for a good family sailplane. The Schweizers also build the Grumman AG-Cat, a crop duster, and do subcontract work for Grumman, Fairchild, Bell, Sperry Rand and Republic.
"It's not a big business," said Paul Schweizer. "The subcontracts keep us going. I guess we could build metal boats or luggage and make more money. But we like to build sailplanes. This is our life and we enjoy it. Come along to ground school."
I hadn't flown anything in six years, but suddenly there I was, in ground school with three other would-be glider pilots. One was a beginner, who had never flown before. "I don't like airplanes," he said, "but I've always been fascinated by soaring." The other two were licensed power pilots.