Monday evening, 6pm. It’s August and central Germany is experiencing rain and cold temperatures for around a week already. I guess autumn is coming early this year.
I just returned from my summer vacation in Savoy/France the Sunday before (I’ve been hiking) and my dirty laundry is piling up in front of me. Actually I wanted to spend this week sort-of low profile. Cleaning up my mess, getting some paperwork done and finally getting some work in my home club done. But destiny obivously didn’t agree with my, somewhat conservative idea.
“Beep, Beep, Beep!” The cellphone in my pocket starts ringing and there, this weird story begins.
The display says “Flo”. A longtime friend of mine and fellow glider pilot. Currently flying his LS 1-d “FT” from Wittstock Airfield, north of Berlin.
Me: “Hey Flo, how are you doing buddy?”
Flo: “Hey uhm….what are you doing right now?”
Me: “Not so much, dishes, laundry all the fun stuff…”
Flo: “I got an additional week of vacation, Wednesday I’ll be on a VGC Meeting in Gardelegen, wanna do something until than?”
Me: “Weather is going to be marginal in whole Germany this week Flo.”
Flo: “Ah..uhm…well in that case…wanna meet at the Wasserkuppe for a couple of beers tonight?”
Me: “That sounds terribly stupid, that is like a 2 hour drive for me and a 6 HOUR DRIVE for you mate.”
Flo: “Oh yeah I forgot…”
-10 Seconds of silence on the phone-
Flo: “So in that case….…. I should hurry, get a strong coffee brewed and fetch my sleeping bag, see you at midnight Robsen!”
- He hangs up -
I stare at the screen of my phone and pause my thoughts for a while. “Did he just said he is going for it?” I start asking myself whether this is a terrible prank, my friend is pulling on me or not and I think: “He has more time to drive than me, so lets wait and see what happens.”
Still with some hesitation, I start to pack my car with all the necessities that I might need for such a trip: Sleeping bag, gas stove, jacket, watchcap, gloves, coffee, can, cups and after a few minutes I look at the trunk of my old Volvo caravan and must admit that it makes a formidable makeshift RV.
Being an outdoor guy I’ve got a pretty good routine in packing so all that is done in 20 or so minutes. Time for me to go inside and finish up my dishes, it is getting dark already and from now on, I am completely convinced, that this is one of the lesser funny pranks of Flo. Just in that moment I receive the following picture from Flo via a messaging app on my phone and a simple text, saying: “ETA 0036lcl”
“Gosh! He’s not joking, Flo is on the road already!” A big grin is forming on my face and start making myself a can of coffee. Suddenly I realize that I promised to stop by my girlfriend’s parents house tomorrow. “That’s not going to work at all!” And I kind of start to wonder whether this is one of those famous things couples break up for. So I start dialing:
Her: “Hey, did not expect to hear from you! Whats up?”
Me: “On a scale from 0 to 10 how much do love the spontaneity of your boyfriend?”
Her: (concerned) “What did you break?”
Me: “Flo and I are meeting on the Wasserkuppe tonight.”
Her: "It's raining and almost dark."......pauses for a second….(laughs) “Allright you two have fun.”
I hang up relieved. Thank god I have a girlfriend that understands my obsession for soaring!
Two hours later I am sitting behind the wheel, driving through lonely, wet roads towards the Wasserkuppe mountain. The higher I get, the lesser I can see and by the time I have reached the top, I am driving in complete IMC conditions. I stop the car close to the old hangars. I must admit that I don’t have a clue where I am exactly and my brain is not doing a good job, remembering my last visit on the “WaKu”, 5 years ago either. A couple of minutes later Flo arrives. And we both agree that neither one of us, has a frickin’ idea where to go so we pick the first “official” parking lot that we can find, park our cars next to each other and have a few beer.
The next morning we both wake up late. 9 AM. I wipe the water from my window and see …nothing… we’re still in the clouds. After a healthy breakfast and some trunk-brewed coffee we both head out to the probably most valuable museum of soaring history in the world. It is located directly on the Wasserkuppe and just recently has been expanded. Due to less optimum weather we are almost alone. Just a group of fellow glider pilots from Innsbruck who are having their summer camp nearby are joining us today.
A lot has changed since my last visit and I am more than dazzled to see all those rare and unusual designs. Even though I never really had a thing for the first wooden gliders, I can see the excitement and ambition that was put in those airplanes back, almost 100 years ago. I love to read the stories about the “Rhoenwettbewerbe” (Rhoencompetitions) where almost all famous airplane designers from that time had an appearance at some point and for me it is unbelievable that young adventurers like Espenlaub could make it to the Wasserkuppe by bicycle and work and live on that sparsely populated mountaintop throughout the winter season. What these people have contributed to soaring is almost beyond my understanding.
Looking into the second exhibition hall, I can finally see all of those airplanes I have read and heard about the last years. The famous LSD-Ornith, the only Rolladen-Schneider twin-seater, the high-altitude Kranich-III, Hirth’s Minimoa and of course the father of almost every glider design, the D-36.
But there is something special to this particular museum, which I am slowly realizing right now. For me some of those exhibits are also somehow connected to me and my soaring life, even though I never flew a world record, or won a world championship or even donated something (I wish there’d be something donate! :D) . It’s the small things, that you stumble across. I saw Klaus Burkhard’s SB-5 V-Tail glider sitting in the exhibition. I know Klaus, he once used to fly in Reinheim, a club close to my home club. And on one day during the summer holidays some friends of mine and I could see him land-out at our field during the week, while we were sitting at the lakeside. We rushed over to the field and organized an aerotow for him. I was a student pilot by then and this event contributed heavily to my excitement for cross-country flying.
Just a few feet away from his SB-5 there was an umbrella from the women’s world championships in Schweinfurt 1988 with the signatures of all the participants. Under the competition ID “ZH” I saw the signature of Vicky Schneider, who has been one of my instructors and is still actively flying and teaching at home. I immediately forwarded that picture to her via phone. She was more than happy to see this long forgotten gift ending up in a worthy location.
In another corner you could see and touch cross-sections of profiles of different airfoils and finally I could touch and see a DG-600 profile, which was probably cut out from a crashed example. I have to admit that I was always a big fan of this sleek airplane, even though, or maybe because of it’s bad reputation and despite me growing up with almost only LS-Type gliders and given the problems with the current certificate holder I’d still love to fly one of these beauties one day.
Flo also found some connection points, mainly stemming from his Aerodynamics studies and of course a LS 1-0, the uncle of his long time companion “FT”.
After that we had lunch in downtown Poppenhausen, the village where Alexander-Schleicher Flugzeugbau is located and had a brief look at the Huhnrain Airstrip, the company owned strip, unfortunately we couldn’t see any gliders being present. Well, go figure with that kind of weather!
The rest of the day we spent on the Wasserkuppe again. We tried to visit the Oldtimer Segelflug Club (OSC) where the former K-3 Glider of another friend and former instructor is being restored, but I guess the weather was too bad even for some quality garage time. Our last stop was the “Fliegerdenkmal”. A monument built in the 1920ies in honor of all of those who committed their life to flying. Even though this monument is not as great or beautiful as most others, Flo and I stood in awe. Soaring has never been a well-recognized sport in Germany and the scene is still pretty small, so I guess it has to be at least our job to recognize those that have contributed so much and have dedicated their life to aviation in more than challenging times.
The night came soon and we spent our evening in the inner city of Gersfeld a slightly bigger town in the Rhoen region, before we went back up again to sleep in our cars. Came 9 AM the next morning we woke up and had to realize that we weren’t alone anymore tons of busses and cars carrying tourist were already up and I guess that was kind of the signal for us to leave the Wasserkuppe to them.
So we had a quick breakfast and Flo left to Wittstock, where he wanted to fetch his glider and I started to drive home, in order to finally do my laundry.
Now, why am I writing this story? I guess this is some kind of tribute to the soaring community, to those that really live the idea of friendship and for those that tend to have stupid ideas occasionally. Happiness in soaring is more than a 1000K FAI a, vacation in Namibia or a new shiny racing class glider. If you want soaring can even be the key to a funny midnight meeting on a rainy Wasserkuppe day.