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A Silence in the Sky
Roy Terrell
November 06, 1961
In 1956 there were 600 sailplane pilots in the U.S., or about one for every 5,000 buzzards, an arrangement endorsed by both the Audubon Society and society in general. The sport of soaring was judged expensive and dangerous. Airport Operators conspired to keep gliders from cluttering up their traffic patterns, and small boys with air rifles considered them better targets than the neighbors' cats. In "Government by the People" Burns and Peltason included the Soaring Society of America among oddball organizations, along with the American Sunbathers' Association and the Blizzard Men of 1888.
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November 06, 1961

A Silence In The Sky

In 1956 there were 600 sailplane pilots in the U.S., or about one for every 5,000 buzzards, an arrangement endorsed by both the Audubon Society and society in general. The sport of soaring was judged expensive and dangerous. Airport Operators conspired to keep gliders from cluttering up their traffic patterns, and small boys with air rifles considered them better targets than the neighbors' cats. In "Government by the People" Burns and Peltason included the Soaring Society of America among oddball organizations, along with the American Sunbathers' Association and the Blizzard Men of 1888.

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Then, slowly, soaring began to grow. Denied governmental subsidies available in Europe—there are 50,000 sailplane pilots in Germany alone—unencouraged by artificial stimulation of any kind and handicapped by a shortage of facilities, the long-winged little craft began to dot the skies in ever-increasing numbers over the Pacific beaches and the ranges of the Sierra, over the plains of Texas and the Appalachian ridges. Much of the impetus was supplied by former military pilots, disenchanted with the failure of private aviation to live up to its postwar promise, yet unwilling to divorce themselves completely from the sky. By 1958 the number of registered soaring addicts in the U.S. had grown to 1,350, and there are more than 3,000 of them today. The numbers are still modest as sporting booms go, and because of an old law concerning the gravitational acceleration of terrestrial bodies toward the center of the earth, sailing in the sky will perhaps never attain the popularity of sailing on the sea. Yet the buzzards are beginning to look worried.

One of the centers of this esoteric sport is in Elmira, N.Y., partly because of its topography, partly because of the presence there of three brothers named Schweizer. Elmira is located in that rolling, wooded area of New York state lying between the Finger Lakes and the Pennsylvania border, and it is known as the Glider Capital of America, at least in Elmira. You come down Route 17, past Binghamton, where Whitey Ford struck out 151 batters one year, along the Susquehanna River, past Owego and Waverly, and eventually you find yourself in Elmira. Mark Twain is buried there, and all of the motels are named Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. They might try calling one The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and see what that would do for the tourist business.

Outside Elmira, in a sleepy little valley to the west, sprawls the village of Horse-heads, where local legend says there was once an Indian massacre and local cynics say there was once a slaughterhouse. Outside Horseheads sits Chemung County Airport, and on the other side of the airport sits the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation and its appendage, the Schweizer Soaring School. In 1957, 500 sailplane flights were logged there. This year there will be almost 5,000.

Just as it is difficult to reach the Schweizer Soaring School without passing Mark Twain, it is almost impossible to get to the Schweizers themselves without starting at Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal was a crazy Pomeranian who in 1891 built a contraption of peeled willow rods, covered it with a waxed fabric and, by galloping furiously off a hill and into space while wearing this thing, managed to become the first glider pilot. Eventually he crashed and killed himself, of course, but not before setting a record flight of 900 feet and contaminating others with his madness. Especially despondent were the Pomeranians, who used to gather by the hundreds to watch old Otto perform and now found themselves with nothing to do on Sunday afternoons but raise those funny-looking little dogs.

Lilienthal was the first glider pilot. The first soaring pilot was Orville Wright. While testing a stabilizing device for his newfangled aeroplane, Orville launched himself in a glider one day in 1911, caught a slope wave and went up instead of down. He remained aloft for nine minutes and 45 seconds. It was a record, but hardly anyone was excited, least of all Orville, who had work to do back on the ground.

After World War I the Germans took over. Denied an air force by the Versailles Treaty, they turned to gliders and established an operating base in the Rh�n Mountains. There the Germans really discovered soaring and built the first true sailplanes, feathery little craft with long tapered wings that would do much more than merely slide down the sky. Day after day the fledgling Luftwaffe pilots soared, rather than glided, flying higher and higher, spanning ever greater distances. Usually they rode the strong winds that roared up the ridges, but one day a pilot named Max Kegel was sucked up in a thunderstorm and doubled the old distance record before he could get down. Then a young Austrian, Robert Kronfeld, discovered that upwinds exist even under light cumulus-cloud formations, and off Robert went across country, hopping from one cloud base to another. In 1928 he soared from the Wasserkuppe to Himmeldankberg and back to the Wasserkuppe, which is hard enough to pronounce without having to fly it.

And that same year soaring came to America. At the instigation of J. C. Penney, who must have figured that sailplane pilots wore out a lot of pants, the Germans brought a glider to Cape Cod. From the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers once spent part of a miserable winter munching on maize, they soared off Corn Hill.

The first U.S. soaring meet was held in 1930 at Elmira, and that October a famed German pilot and designer named Wolf Hirth made a historic flight. Eschewing cloud formations and ridge currents, Hirth took off cross-country from Elmira, depending for his lift only upon thermals, those helpful bubbles of hot air that arise on sunny days from plowed fields and the tin roofs of factories and old automobile junk heaps. He landed 54 miles away near Apalachin.

In 1932 the Soaring Society of America was formed. Originally it was called the American Soaring Society, but the members changed the name in a hurry when they began to think about a letterhead. But soaring didn't really begin to grow in America until the Schweizer boys, Ernie and Paul and Will, came along.

The Schweizers were Swiss, sons of the chef at the old Carnegie Hall Restaurant, and they can remember their father toiling over a special omelette for Fritz Kreisler, who was something of a personal pet. They used to slip backstage and watch Toscanini warm up. But most of their time, when not in school, was spent in the family barn at Peekskill. They were building a glider.

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