Formed in 1949, the Royal Air Force Gliding Association (RAFGSA) aims to bring gliding and soaring within reach of all members of the RAF. The establishment of a small staff of SNCOs and airmen was announced to Parliament on 17 July 1963 by Mr Hugh Fraser the then Secretary of State for Air, after negotiation by Group Captain Roy Goodbody, the Chairman at the time. The RAFGSA Centre was established in October 1963 as part of 71 MU at RAF Bicester. In the process of forming, the Centre absorbed the Windrushers Gliding Club, which had been formed in January 1956. The Association has a history of producing pilots at the very highest levels of this exacting sport and has even produced a triple world champion. However, the emphasis lies firmly with training the uninitiated and introducing servicemen, civilian MOD employees and their families to this safe but exhilarating aviation sport.
Gliding in the 1940s by Bill Pugh
So far as I know gliding began at RAF Halton sometime in 1945 or 1946. Certainly gliders were in use at the time that the 54th Entry of Aircraft Apprentices arrived, in October 1946 We were only allowed to volunteer for gliding instruction in the final year of our 3 year course, and my first Log entry was on 17 November 1948. Keen or what? - it must have been freezing hanging around on the airfield at that time of year!
We, of course, were not privileged to just hang around waiting for a launch. We were, quite rightly, required to help with the "housekeeping": getting the aircraft out and returning them to the hangar, taking part in the launch procedure by helping with the winching and retrieving the gliders after their flights were completed, using a battered old wartime jeep. Of course great fun was to be had while doing this and spending time "down on the drome" on summer days (and balmy evenings) had much to recommend it. To actually get to fly the things as well was the icing on the cake and the fulfillment of this boy's dream! It also had the advantage that it removed one from the necessity of playing tiresome games, like football, rugger, hockey etc, which only keen types did voluntarily. Those who did not do "organized" sport on Wednesday afternoons were automatically shang-hai'd into cross-country running, a form of torture unparalleled by anything else I know of.
The aircraft that we had at the time (1948/9) were a "Dagling" and a Kirby Cadet. To gain the "A" licence we used the former, which was technically a Slingsby Type 3 Primary, the English version of the German designed "Zogling". This was literally a flying bed- frame, and quite exciting to use. The Cadet was used later.
Initial training was simple! You were strapped into the seat and told how to use the joystick and rudder, instructed to keep the wing-tips off the ground and then pulled slowly(?) across the grass, frightened to death that you might break the thing or inadvertently find yourself airborne. This was called a "groundslide" (GS in your logbook). Once you had satisfied your instructor that you could manage the thing, you progressed to a "low hop" groundslide. Here you were allowed to pull the stick back, become airborne for about six feet and land again immediately. This was known as an "airborne slide" (ABS). Oh - how smug you felt on completing that successfully!
So you progressed, getting slightly higher (10 feet) and a bit longer in the air (in the space available), until your instructor said: "OK - try a release". Then you took off, climbed immediately to about 20 feet, released the cable, flew free for a few yards and landed, all in a straight line - terrified that you might misjudge the distances and hit the winch vehicle further down the field! Complete that successfully several times and the instructor would say: "Right lad - now try a high hop release". This was similar, except that you released the cable at about 50 feet, and was a wonderfully exhilarating experience. With the excitement came the reward of the instructor's words: "OK lad - well done, you've got your "A" Licence!".
Was I smug, cocky, conceited? You bet I was! Regrettably I had run out of time. Exams, band practice and the pass-out parade loomed and and I never had the chance to fly round the airfield to gain my "B" licence in the Kirby Cadet. There is an excellently restored example of one of these gliders in the Trenchard Museum and that has inspired me to write this article.