Flapping and flopping for a thousand years in imitation of eagles, crows, beetles and fish, man finally found his way into the air. In sailplanes he now flies well and high with very little fuss and no feathers at all
July 10, 1955

North and west of San Diego, along the palisades of Point Loma and Torrey Pines, for 30 years sailplanes have been wheeling as smoothly as frigate birds, their wing tips feeling each change of air. As pictured on the preceding pages, this motorless flight looks so easy. In some respects now, it is an easy art, but it is not one that man mastered easily. The first real soaring masters were the Germans, who turned to powerless flight in 1920 when denied an air force by the Versailles Treaty and were refining the art in the late '20s, when Veteran Pilot Hawley Bowlus and Charles and Anne Lindbergh first rode the cool winds of Point Loma. Today, in fact, Dr. Wolfgang Klemperer of the Lockheed Corporation, who started the German movement 35 years ago, occasionally soars in these same winds over Torrey Pines.

Around the turn of the century the German, Otto Lilienthal, and the Americans, Octave Chanute and the Wright Brothers, had glided successfully enough to open the way for power flight, but theirs was brief hovering. The nine-minute endurance record set by the Wright Brothers in 1911 would wow no one in this day when pilots have soared over 55 hours to the edge of unconsciousness, but it rates as quite an achievement in contrast to most of the earlier attempts made during a thousand years of wild trial and error.

Men long ago were filled with the urge to fly, but they did not have a very good idea of how to go about it. There were some who thought it best to ride harnessed flocks of birds, relying, as it were, on wings already flight-tested. Somehow this always failed, but men kept looking at the birds and designing wings. They designed wings like those of crows and eagles, like dragonflies, beetles—even like fish fins. They launched themselves from towers in some very treacherous machines. Many of them would have done as well riding in a butter churn. In 1809 a Viennese clockmaker, Jacob Degen, assisted by a small balloon, did flap up 54 feet on his first try. He failed on his next three attempts and impatient onlookers gave him a thrashing. No one ever did well at it, but for some reason there have always been a few wing-flappers lurking around the halls of science. In the 18th century the Marquis of Bacqueville tried to flap across the Seine River and crashed on a washerwoman's barge. In 1930, Harry Hodge launched himself from a New York bridge in his eighth flapping machine, fell 133 feet into the Harlem River and was fetched up by a tug.

Man first got into the air under balloons in 1783. While balloonists were having a century of exciting ups and downs (SI, May 9), other aeronauts held the belief that man could get aloft on heavier-than-air, fixed wings. In 1809 in England, Sir George Cayley successfully launched a pilotless glider, but when his coachman was persuaded to get aboard a large glider it crashed. If Cayley, a man with the proper scientific approach, had not devoted most of his time to lighter-than-air flight, winged flight might have come sooner, sparing some of the less scientific-minded a few hard bumps.

A French sea captain, Jean-Marie Le Bris, like Cayley, studied the birds. "I took an albatross wing and held it into the wind!" exclaimed Le Bris. "I comprehended the whole mystery of flight." Le Bris built a fabric albatross and aboard it proceeded into a 12-mile wind towed by a horse cart. Le Bris swooped into the air, pulling up after him the cart rail to which the rope was attached and the cart driver, and they all came down together. For his second try, Le Bris, who should have stayed at sea, swung out on a boom 100 feet over a rock quarry, let go and plummeted.

Sanity returned with the efforts of Otto Lilienthal, who started with small wings, leaping gently off a springboard onto plowed ground. Though even in his day aeronauts did not fully comprehend the aerodynamics of a fixed wing, particularly the stabilizing effect of dihedral and the lift obtained from a cambered upper surface, Lilienthal was the first to give a decent exhibition of stable, gliding flight, as well as the proper attitude. "We must," concluded Lilienthal, "serve an apprenticeship to the birds."

In some ways the soaring pilot still serves an apprenticeship. Even the best today still only soar statically, that is, gain altitude by riding updrafts that are rising faster than the sailplane sinks. At times a pilot may spot a cadence in gusty air and get some altitude from the intermittent lulls and gusts, but in this sort of dynamic soaring the birds are still ahead and well worth watching. In some respects, on the other hand, the sailplanes have left the birds behind. Ridges and thermals still afford good sailing for a competent pilot, but the experts are now going into bigger lifts, the standing waves which exist on the lee side of large mountain ranges. In the lee of the Sierras around Bishop, Calif., the pilots are now soaring up to eight and a half miles. The turbulence around roll clouds encountered near such waves has at times torn sailplanes apart. "At those heights," says Sailplane Manufacturer Paul Schweizer, "you're flying on the ragged edge." Before he tries the big waves, a man should serve a good long apprenticeship on a ridge like Torrey Pines.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)