Have you ever wondered where the fine German gliders originate, where and how they are designed and created and who those guys are who put hundreds of hours of hard work into those pretty and shiny AS-ships? Have you ever traveled to the world’s oldest glider factory? Well, not every glider pilot on Earth gets the chance to physically visit the manufacturer’s facilities.
I had volunteered to pick up an overhauled engine there last week; and I was lucky to learn more about Alexander Schleicher Segelflugzeugbau! After a long and exhausting drive along Germany’s biggest construction site (alias the Autobahn A7) I finally was allowed to take a 90 degree turn heading eastwards up into the rolling hills of the Rhön. To be honest, being a flatlander I ought to call these hills “mountains”. The highest one, the world-famous Wasserkuppe, also known as the birthplace of gliding, measures almost 1000 meters (~ 3000 feet). Driving up the narrow but well maintained roads you pass right through Poppenhausen, a small town in a valley, where Alexander Schleicher had once constructed his first glider (Hol’s der Teufel). In 1927 the carpenter thus had started a long and lasting tradition of building sailplanes. From the road the buildings a little bit outside the city center look more like a huge historical hotel or an old school, but the long row of glider trailers parked in front of the buildings tells you another story.
I spot RZ already waiting for me! At Schleicher’s my glider goes by 245, according to her serial number. Mario Link who is guiding me through the different workshops explains: “We finished the ASH 26 series with #257, but you could still order the #258. Look, these are the molds in which all ASH 26’s and ASG 29’s wings were born.” At least the inner part of both gliders’ wings is laid in there; the tips are of course shaped differently.
When I last met Mario 20 years ago, we were both practicing our first ridge flights on a 2 mile long (short…) ridge at a small glider port near Kassel. While my husband was instructing the young student pilot, I had to learn ridge soaring by just doing it myself… We spent a fun week together. Later, after Mario had received his license he enjoyed a number of great opportunities to fly at different places. At the age of 36 he has already seen much more of the best soaring paradises on Earth than me: Australia, Bitterwasser, Parowan… He thinks, he is “kind of spoiled”.
Some ten years ago Mario finally returned to Poppenhausen, where he had spent his childhood, and working at Schleicher’s he is now responsible for everything that has left the factory. Whenever you have a maintenance problem on your AS-ship you will probably be talking to him.
120 people are working at Schleicher’s, about 20 of them in the office, but on busy days everybody quits their desk to put his or her hands on gliders. Outside we meet Uli Kremer, the factory’s director, working on a canopy - in front of his office: “Spring is the busiest time of the year. Everybody wants to have his glider ready to launch into the new season. And every glider is the most important.” Mario’s cellphone rings again and again, but he manages the situation. While walking me over to the next workshop he explains that building a new glass and carbon fiber ship takes about 2000 hours of work, sometimes more. And everything is handmade! “When some years ago the construction of big aircraft started to use carbon fiber as well, we were facing much higher prices for the raw material.” Okay, I am no longer surprised about the price for a brand new glider.
We climb up a stairway and pass through a small room with shelves, where I find ASG 32 parts: “Mario, wasn’t the new model going to be launched this spring?” Well, excellent work takes a while “and spring is not yet over…” Behind the next door, again a huge workshop: “This is where we construct the wings.” One of them has a much thicker airfoil than the rest of the pieces in the hangar, and instead of carbon fiber and glass you can see wooden parts on the inside of the wing. Looks like an ASK 21? “Yes, we are still building them. A very rewarding series as there is still a huge demand for on the market. So far we have built about 900 of them.” I furthermore learn that finishing an ASK 21 takes “only” about 1000 hours of labor. Then we have to step back downstairs to walk over to the next building which hosts the paint and finish shop.
Stop! “How do the wings get down from the first floor to meet the fuselages downstairs?” “We have to carry them down.” Okay, this is a really historic place. While over the years the production grew, more and more space was needed to host the different sections of the production process. So now instead of having one huge hangar, Schleicher attached some rooms here and there and today uses several different smaller buildings to finish their high-end products. The meadow on the other side of the creek would have been a perfect place to build a whole new factory, but when asked, the city of Poppenhausen did not agree to this idea. In the Rhön mountains fox and rabbit are still enjoying their peace; sorry, I almost forgot to mention the birds! It is a lovely green and untouched spot, so why would you put a huge hangar into the middle of a charming valley?
All the workers we meet are awfully friendly. “How many of them are glider pilots?” The response is quite surprising: “Almost nobody.” Most of the staff lives somewhere close to the factory. Many of them have started their career at Schleicher’s, and have been working on airplanes all their lives. They are proud of their work, devoted to one of the biggest employers in the region and happy with what they do. No need to change to a different job. Some employees have taken a glider ride or two, but working on gliders does not mean you have to fly them. Whenever a championship is taking place somewhere on Earth, the results are posted in the factory to inform everybody about “their ships’” performance. You will see smiling faces everywhere when a Schleicher sailplane is on top of the list!
Wonderful, I am absolutely thrilled, and I don’t mind waiting a little longer to pick up my trailer. A short ride up to the Wasserkuppe fills my “dead” time. The weather is great, a good soaring day, probably the first one of the season. Due to a huge dust cloud from the Sahara desert the visibility is reduced, however the mountain is very busy. Gliders are being towed up to some good-looking clouds, para gliders are using the ridges on the opposite side of the mountain to practice some first little jumps. Some are already ridge soaring. It is way too warm outside to go into the museum… Am I missing something? Well, I have visited this place before.
Back down at the Schleicher factory I take a last quick walk over to the local airfield “Huhnrain”. Looks a little narrow to me… This is where in November 2006, RZ had taken her very first 27 minute ride, piloted by Uli Kremer. I wonder how they manage the larger wing spans here. On the opposite side of the runway there are two smaller hangars. One of them says “Edgar’s Flying Ranch”. Probably the tow plane’s hangar, named after the retired CEO, Uli’s father? Special thanks to Mario Link for offering your valuable time to Soaring Café!