The Vintage & Classic Glider Club of New Zealand Inc


Updated  10.11.20

Heritage Matters

Vintage Kiwi is an organisation dedicated to the restoration and flying of vintage and classic gliders that, even though they had been valued for some time amongst a growing band of enthusiast in the rest of the world, have until recently attracted little interest here. New Zealand is today renown for both its past achievements and the excellent flying conditions, pioneered in gliders that can still be seen flying in many countries, but only one can be currently seen in the air here.

Whilst this article is primarily about gliders, sailplanes may be a more correct name, a difference that can be explained, but it’s hardly worth it, the people and places should not be ignored. The USA and Germany both honour the names of their pioneers, their achievements, and the flying sites. Here they are largely ignored, a situation that needs addressing for time is not on our side.

It is impossible to paint a complete picture in a just a few pages of New Zealand’s gliding history, and explain, until now, the lack of concern. Instead the story of five gliders that led to the high standing of NZ gliding will be used in this article, both to illustrate the problem and show what is now being done to rectify this.

In 1949 a sailplane, an “Olympia” home built in Australia, but designed in pre-war Germany by Hans Jacobs for the 1940 Olympics in Finland, cancelled because the world was other wise involved, came to New Zealand.  Called “Yellow Witch”, not “Yellow Bitch”, as this was considered a bit too strong for 1949 Australia. It came, with its then owner and pilot, Arthur Hardinge, for a pre-arranged aerial tour of aero clubs and airshows in both islands. This tour, it was claimed at the time, kick started modern post war gliding in New Zealand which, at that time, was lagging behind the rest of the world. After a somewhat dramatic and acclaimed tour it returned to Australia, where it was sold, for whilst the venture had been successful in terms of public interest, it was financially disastrous. Contemporary reports saying that Arthur, as a result, “had a breakdown and died soon afterwards” are, to quote Mark Twain, “exaggerated”. Arthur is living in retirement in Canada, whilst “Yellow Witch” remains flying in Australia. In contrast there are in NZ no gliders from this time currently flying in New Zealand, whilst Australia even have one, the “Golden Eagle”, a 1930’s design in the air. An “Olympia” has however, recently been imported to NZ could soon be flying, whilst another, GAA, that Gordon Hookings and Ralph Court imported after the “Witch” tour is now stored for future restoration by its latest owner.

Prior to the “Olympia”, Hans Jacobs, one of Germany’s best known glider designers, produced the “Weihe” a model that was to influence glider design well into the 1950’s. “Weihes” dominated gliding in the post war years wining World Championships in 1948 and 1950 and Weihes were still competing at world level in 1954, 16 years after the first flight.  Towards the end of the war, Phillip Wills, perhaps one of Britain’s best-known pilots, flew to Germany and brought back a “Weihe” threatened, like many other gliders, with destruction by the invading forces. It is said that he had to cut fuselage in two for it to fit in the aircraft’s cabin. After restoration Phillip flew it in the UK where Kiwi Dick Georgeson, a relation of his, was so impressed he decided to take up gliding, eventually importing a “Prefect” into NZ, a glider that will appear later in this story

In 1951 Wills sold his “Weihe” to Dick Georgeson, who used it pioneering the high altitude gliding for which New Zealand is now world famous. Dick, and the “Weihe”, or “GAE”, for gliders are often known by their registration, became equally famous with epic national height and distance records. In the hands of Phillip Wills, who had arranged to fly his old glider here, it made a world record breaking flight to over 30,000 feet.

Dick eventually sold GAE to buy the higher performance gliders like the Skylark 3f, GCF to a syndicate that included Chris Wills, Phillips’s son, maintaining the family connection and continuing notable flights. After passing through several hands, it fell on hard times and was left to rot, a sad end to a famous glider. However, all was not lost thanks to Ashburton Aviation Museum who had managed to salvage the fuselage and restore it for static display. If you want to see Weihes flying now, it requires a trip to Japan, USA, UK, France, Germany etc. Vintage Kiwi are planning to buy a Weihe to replace GAE, and a fund-raising campaign is being prepared.

At the other end of the performance range, two other gliders, both based on a pre war German design, the “Grunau Baby” were flying here in the 1950’s. One of these, an EoN Baby, is currently NZ’s oldest flying glider, restored by Don Grigg at Rotorua, and can be seen flying there and at Taupo. The other, a Slingsby Prefect, GAB, was imported by Dick Georgeson in 1950, before his days with the Weihe, and was soon flying in the Mackenzie Basin, exploring the high-altitude possibilities, and breaking the NZ Endurance record. This was only the start, for within a year both the NZ Absolute and Gain of Height records were set.

The Prefect, owned by Bill Walker, had not flown for several years and had been stored in a good hangar at Omarama, where birds eventually started to investigate its suitability as a nest box. Bill had it restored to flying condition by the Croydon Aircraft Co at Manderville in the South Island, and it can now be seen ‘flying’ inside Queenstown Airport. There is a remote possibility that it may be flown again, taking part in selected vintage flying events.

Until the 1950’s much glider training was carried out in single seater primary gliders, in fact Dick Georgeson learned to fly gliders that way. The pupil pilot learning by being shouted at by an instructor on the ground as they progressively went from ground hops to high launches, sitting on what has been described as a farm gate with wings. There are no primary gliders flying in New Zealand today which doesn’t worry many modern pilots as they don’t like the idea of being shouted at or sitting out in the open looking at the ground disappearing between their feet. In contrast, at international vintage rallies they can be seen flying until dark, such is the demand for the chance to fly one. Vintage Kiwi may investigate fund-raising plans to bring the experience back to New Zealand if enough interest is shown.

At around the time the Yellow Witch was here, gliding clubs began to realise that solo tuition was not such a good idea and that two seater training should be introduced as this was becoming the norm. The Canterbury Gliding Club, one of the first to make this move, importing an open cockpit Slingsby T31 Tandem Tutor in kit form in 1951. Built largely by Fred Dunn, who was later involved with many of the T31’s built here as other clubs saw the benefits. Two NZ pilots, John Evans and John van Til took the Canterbury’s T31 to 19,000 ft in 1953 without oxygen and in an open cockpit, still an impressive flight today in a modern glider. The T31, with the Weihe, Prefect and EoN Baby plus the Olympia, imported by Gordon Hookings following the Yellow Witch tour, were key to the growth of NZ gliding, and were soon followed by other modern gliders. New Zealand gliding was now on the way. The bad news is that here are no longer any T31’s flying here, the last example recently going to the Classic Flier’s Museum in Tauranga.

It should not be thought that vintage or classic gliders are like old cars, highly polished, kept under a dust cover and only brought out when no rain is expected. Gliders are meant to be flown, and whilst some only appear at rallies, others are kept in regular flying use, representing what some see as the cheapest gliding opportunities. The Nelson Lakes Gliding Club bought a German designed Ka4 Rhonlerche, called a Lark here, new in 1960’s. Over forty years later was still being used for training and solo flying at the Nelson club till it interacted with a cow. It’s longevity was not because of nostalgia or, because it is old, but because it did a job at a fraction of the cost of a modern glider. Other Larks have been kept in flying condition in New Zealand, but at this time, there are no longer any airworthy examples flying here. It should also be said at this stage that many clubs and individuals are flying 1960’s gliders for similar reasons, not even seeing them as vintage or classic. In contrast in most other countries, old gliders, both pre and post war are prized and every year over 100 can be seen flying in Europe at the International Vintage Rally. Additionally, in the UK, USA, and Germany, amongst others, new “old” gliders are being built to the original plans, not replicas but almost as late production models.

What about gliders that can no longer be restored to fly? There is no specific Gliding Museum in NZ, unlike many other countries, and the question that sometimes comes up is should old gliders be displayed and never flown? Unfortunately most of the best museums, even when they are on an airfield where other gliders can be seen in their own environment, never fly. In contrast, in France at Angers, where one of two International Vintage Rallies was held, many of the on-site regional aviation museum’s display gliders were to be flown. Where would Wanaka be without flying war-birds?

Flying aside, space must be found for interesting gliders that can no longer be flown or restored to that condition, so Vintage Kiwi cannot ignore museums for they have an important part to play. Economic realities suggest that a national gliding museum, is unlikely to be formed, and this has led to what Vintage Kiwi call a “Distributed and Virtual Gliding Museum”, a concept that is under development. The idea which may not be new to museums as it is to gliding, and is basically very simple, although significant costs would be involved.

There are already gliders on display at museums across the country, for example MOTAT in Auckland, Ashburton, Wellington, and Tauranga, where a home for quite a few gliders was found at the Classic Fliers Museum. Other museums have gliders in store, and they should be encouraged to display them, or release them for display elsewhere. To these museum gliders can be added old gliders that are still flown, effectively making their airfield a museum that can be added to with more conventional ones. These sites will together be part of the Vintage Kiwi Distributed Museum.

The Virtual Museum part of the concept is of course on the the VK website. Linking together all the NZ galleries and supplementing these with foreign ones where there are display gaps. An ambitious project but one that has potential tourist interest, linking museums, airfields and possibly sites of historic flying interest. Vintage Kiwi could also become the first home of the ”Gliding Hall of Fame”. This concept will only come to full fruition with the active co-operation of museums and a source of funding for development.

Museums, existing, virtual or distributed are only part of our plans, flying is the most important plus getting mainstream glider pilots to join us. If we cannot convince them of the importance of our task then we cannot hope to interest the general public. Flying Rallies are the most important recruiting for they not only bring together “Vintage Kiwi” members but also enable other pilots to see the value, and fun, of what we are doing. Two main rallies are held each year, one in each island, and these are supplemented by “mini” rallies over three-day weekends. Rallies have proved very popular, they are our best recruitment tool, and a new idea is to include in our rallies our scale model glider members. They have an important part to play, for only they can get into the air, gliders that no longer exist in full size form, or gliders where perhaps only one or two examples remain.

At its inception “Vintage Kiwi” was envisaged as a gliding club without its own gliders or a airfield. This is now changing for we are planning both to own gliders, to be flown by our members, and to encourage our members to form vintage syndicates. This has been already been done by the group ownership of a German glider from the 60’s, a Schleicher Ka8b, based in the North Island, and moves around the members airfields. If the plans to replace the Weihe, acquire other aircraft, and “borrow” others come to fruition then we will become closer to being a gliding club without an airfield.

This leads to an interesting thought. Should “Vintage Kiwi” become primarily a “flying museum without a building” rather than just a gliding club without an airfield”? This concept would combine our flying activities, glider ownership, distributed and virtual museum into a logical “Heritage” based entity. Now there is something to think about.

Ian Dunkley                                                                                           3rd May 2006             

If you would like to support Vintage Kiwi, membership costs and details can be found on our website at www.glidingkiwi.co.nz.


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