By Martin Simons
I first met Hans-Werner Grosse when he competed in the World Gliding Championships at Waikerie in January 1974 and many times after this in Germany and in Australia when he brought his sailplane to attempt to break world records. He based himself at Waikerie and Alice Springs and later at other favourable sites in Western Australia. He became a friend and when within reach visited my home in Adelaide, with Karin, his wife, who was his co-pilot in some of the flights. Over the years he broke and held most of the important World Records.
The following article, with the bold headline GLIDING, was published in the magazine Men Vogue in Nov/Dec 1977. When he read it before publication, Hans-Werner said it was: “Bullshit, but good bullshit,” and allowed it to go forward. Like other articles of this kind, my intention was partly to introduce the essentials of the sport to people who knew nothing of it, but I hoped my admiration for this remarkable man was also apparent.
Hans-Werner Grosse is now in his ninetieth year, still flying. I have edited and added a few footnotes that were not attached to the original article of 1977.
He is probably not your idea of an ace pilot, this small, active, wiry middle-age man from Lübeck in Germany. His hair has nearly all gone, he has a broad nose for his spectacles to sit on, a wide mouth quick to smile – but his brow can wrinkle in a frown just as swiftly. He is extrovert, enjoys wild, sweaty dancing in the discotheques and runs a shop selling jeans.
He is also one of the half-dozen best sailplane pilots in the world, a man who has achieved the impossible and hopes to do it again. He has spent the last two summers in Australia, breaking records set by himself. And he hopes to return to break them again.
He was an ex-Luftwaffe pilot with more than a hundred different types of power planes in his logbook but he had long been bored with power flying. Anyone, it seemed, could sit behind a powerful motor and drive along. To fly by using the energy of the air alone was surely a greater achievement but it seemed to him at first that the achievements of the leading glider pilots were miraculous. They could fly a sailplane across country for hundreds of kilometres using only thermal currents. Some had climbed by circling inside dangerous thunderstorm clouds with lightning, hail and ice, or ridden smoothly up into the stratosphere on the gigantic air waves that sometimes form like great ripples on the downwind side of mountain ranges. Nothing in the world, he thought, could be more exciting than soaring without an engine. When learning, at first Hans-Werner found it hard even to stay aloft, let alone make the 1000 metre climb and the fifty-kilometre distance flight he required for his Silver C badge.* To achieve this would mark him as a fairly competent soaring pilot.
The little wooden shack he had built, with his own hands, on a bombed site in Lübeck, was beginning to make a profit. He stocked it with trousers made in a friend’s factory and toured the suburbs and farms with his goods on a bicycle.
At weekends, he went gliding. He learned to locate thermals and make use of them, circling carefully in their stronger cores, re-centring when he lost the ‘lift’, climbing faster and higher. He copied the speed flying technique of the American wizard, Paul MacCready, sacrificing hard-won altitude for the sake of higher speeds across the gaps between the upcurrents. He read books on meteorology, and the newspaper weather maps began to mean more to him than a wet day today and a clearing shower or two on Saturday. With the ‘Silver C’ at last achieved, he spent the money he had been saving for a house and car on a Ka 6 sailplane.
One day, to his delight, he flew south from Lübeck for 300 km to a goal, the hardest and most important test for the Gold C, and to it he could add a diamond.* He noticed that some of the club members he had admired were treating him with a little more respect, yet his elation soon wore off. He hadn’t done his second diamond flight, 500km – that would be something to talk about.
Yet, on the day he did it, it seemed a small thing. He had, in his anxiety, taken off early when the ground had scarcely warmed enough to produce a few, scattered, weak thermals. He had tiptoed from one feeble climb to another, saving every scrap of height until, as the day warmed up, the thermals had begun to strengthen and go higher. Then he was able to use the MacCready ring, pushing the speed up to 110 and 120km/hr between the climbs, the wooden wings flexing up and down in the turbulence and the air roaring in his ears. His average ground speed improved and suddenly, below, he recognised landmarks near his goal. He had plenty of altitude and spiralled down to land…another diamond in the bag.
As he sat on the strange airfield, waiting for his crew to come and take him and the Ka 6 home, he watched the local sailplanes soaring overhead. The crisp summer cumulus clouds still drifted by, each marking a good thermal. The best part of the day was still to come, for it was only early afternoon. Why was he down here when he could still have been racing on, and on and on? Suppose, instead of landing, he had pushed on, how far might he have been able to go before the ground began to cool in the evening and the last thermals of the day died? How far might he have gone, even in the little wooden Ka 6, with its span of only 14.6 metres?
If he had one of the new, glass-plastic super-ships with wing flaps, water ballast, new electronic instruments, bigger span, heavier and faster, how far then? The world record for distance in a sailplane was, at that time, less than 900 km. That had been done in Texas where, as everyone knows, thermals, like everything else, tend to be bigger and stronger. Would anyone, even in Texas, ever fly a glider for 1000km?
The resolution that has governed him ever since was formed that afternoon, on an airfield 500 km from Lübeck. His dream was to fly a sailplane further than anyone thought possible and then go further again, and again, to the limit. He was no longer young (born 1923). He must keep himself fit. For one thing, fat men can’t even get into the narrow, streamlined fuselage of a modern sailplane, where every ounce of air resistance degrades the glide, especially at high speeds. Apart from that, the air on a good day is rough; it wouldn’t be good for gliding otherwise. The MacCready method demands fairly violent ‘pull-ups’ into the thermals, with high ‘g’ forces then and in the steeply banked turns in the climbs followed by quite steep dives at 200 of more km/hr out of the top of a thermal to speed along to the next one. This sort of flying is physically exhausting. Hans-Werner was already thinking of distance flights beginning early in the day and continuing until dusk, ten or more hours in the cockpit. Average speeds over the ground must be in excess of 100 km/hr. He would need all his mental stamina too, for cross-country flying is a business of decisions, decisions, decisions. He must choose the right clouds to fly to, navigate, avoid areas where thermals were likely to be weak, such as the wet fenlands of North Germany and the coastal regions swept by cold sea breezes.
Hans-Werner went on a strict diet and began a programme of regular physical exercises which have kept him in top condition ever since.
Fortunately the shop was now doing well. Everyone was buying and wearing blue jeans! He was able soon to buy himself one of the new, superb fibreglass gliders, an ASW 12. The aircraft, with a span of 18.3 metres, had the best cross-country potential of any currently available sailplane. It was, however, rather dangerous, with a high landing speed and only an unreliable tail parachute for braking on the approach. Many times, Hans-Werner found himself with too much height and speed and too little landing space if the braking parachute failed to deploy, which it did sometimes. Still, for the sake of the extra performance the risk seemed worthwhile; he usually managed to stop before hitting anything. He began to plan the distance attempt.
A Texan, Al Parker, beat him to the 1000 km mark and the record now stood at 1160 km. Lübeck lies almost on the East German frontier. 1000km to the east would find him in the USSR. Even if he wasn’t shot to pieces on the way, if he landed there…. well hadn’t he been a Luftwaffe pilot, torpedoing ships in the Arctic convoys to Russia? He was now a rich capitalist! Might not his silent, non-radar-reflecting aircraft be suspected of carrying strange electronic spying devices as well as a sophisticated radio? He planned his flights in the other direction, across Northern Germany and Belgium into France.
His reputation now was high. He had, like those he used to credit with superhuman powers, won gliding championships, broken some local records, and been selected for the German International team of four. Yet the big flight eluded him. Attempt after attempt failed. He would set off in high style and make good progress, then an unexpected front would sweep in from the sea across his path; or the clouds would spread out and even rain on him; or industrial muck from the Ruhr would reduce the heating effect of the sun and weaken the thermals, slowing him down. Night always seemed to catch him somewhere over Central France with hundreds of kilometres still to go.
Each failure taught him something and when at last the day came he was ready. With a strong, blustery northeast wind behind him he declared for Nantes, at the head of the Loire estuary. This would equal the Texan distance and would give him also the record for flight to a pre-determined goal. Everything went well, indeed better than expected. Halfway there he calculated that, if his luck held, he would get to his goal early while there was still some daylight left. Nantes was not far enough! He risked the entire effort on one decision and turned further south, forgetting the goal, just aiming for the greatest possible distance.
It was the right decision. After eleven-and-a-half hours in his tiny cockpit, with the westering sun glinting on the sea, he floated in to a safe landing at Biarritz, on the Atlantic coast. The tail parachute worked.
He had flown 1460 km, exceeding the previous record by 300 km. He cleaned up the goal record two years later with a flight of 1230 km. Both records are still unbroken. Western Europe wasn’t big enough for more.
Now a new ambition formed. To soar along more than 1000 km with the wind had turned out to be possible. Now there was a new idea; to fly the distance round a triangular course. In competitions gliders commonly race round triangles of 100 to 500 km, but usually such races last only a few hours in the afternoon when conditions are strongest. Hans-Werner had already shown himself to be one of the best two or three pilots at that game, but it irritated him to waste so much of the day waiting for the massed start and, after the race finished, sitting around for several more hours of good soaring weather. How big a triangle could one fly, if one really tried? The wind might help on one leg, but it would be a severe hindrance on the other two. To achieve 1000 km would be a worthy new goal. Modern sailplanes now were far superior to the little Ka 6., but even so, a triangle of 1000 km would be difficult.
He first aimed at a triangle of 827 km and after a few failures, completed it. It was a world record but he hardly bothered to claim it for it was so obviously only a stepping-stone.
Every large triangle based on Lübeck took him too near the North Sea, with its cold air killing thermals. He shipped his new sailplane to Finland. There he hoped the long summer days would yield an extra hour or two of thermal activity. Finland, however, is not easy for gliding. Much of it is covered by forest and most of the rest is lakes. Landing fields are few and small. However, the new glider, prosaically called an ASW 17, had proper air brakes and could be landed more easily. Even so, a bad mistake could be disastrous.
Attempt after attempt came to nothing and Hans-Werner became well acquainted with Finnish farmers and lumbermen. The Finnish National Championships passed him by, for he took little interest now in that sort of contest. His race was always with the setting sun. At last, on June 6 1975, he struggled slowly upwards in the last, feeble upcurrent of the day and saw, in the distance, the base aerodrome coming into sight behind the trees. Extracting the last few metres of height from the thermal, he floated over the dense forest and made it home. The 1000 km triangle had been flown.
Perhaps, he thought, he would have done better to go to a bigger, hotter, drier continent like Australia – where at Waikerie in 1974 he had competed and placed third in the World Championships. The shop could look after itself now; people still needed trousers from him to replace the ones they had worn out. Why not spend four months in Australia? He put the ASW 17 on a ship and followed it.
Again he struggled. It was true, of course, that thermals over the Murray plains are often of Texan proportions; but so much nearer the tropics the summer days are shorter than those of Finland. Many times Hans-Werner achieved distances of 800, 900 and even 1000 km but on that day he landed short of the aerodrome and such efforts were barely worth recording. The fact that no one in Australia or anywhere else had achieved such distances on the triangular course, meant little to him.
At last he pulled it off again, with a 1040 km triangle completed in failing light with the Waikerie Gliding Club members anxiously laying out a flare path for him and flashing car headlights to act as a beacon for the last 20 km.
In 1977 he came back again. He explored a new route to the north over desolate scrub country where local pilots would hardly venture. Landings in such country were likely to kill the pilot unless he found a clearing, such as a saltpan, or an isolated homestead with an airstrip. Even if he survived the landing unhurt, it would probably mean days in the waterless scrub before he could be found and rescued. He found abundant thermals over this arid, hot country, although once he did come down on a salt pan and on another occasion landed at a deserted outstation. From here he could only report his position by radioing to a passing Indonesian airliner which relayed his message to Adelaide Control and thence to Waikerie. It took two days to get him home again by road.
In the end everything worked. He raised the record to 1063 km and there was enough light after landing for him to drink a glass of champagne and help push the glider away. That means that he might have been able to go further.
Hans-Werner Grosse is fifty-five years old now. His new sailplane, built specially to his specifications with carbon fibre spar for greater strength and stiffness, hence better performance, is ready in Germany. He means to break the record again, perhaps in Australia, perhaps somewhere else, next year.
He wonders why people think he has superhuman powers. After all, he’s just a humble retailer selling blue jeans to the kids.
· C: A soaring flight of more than 5 minutes above the height of tow release
· Silver C: A flight of five hours’ duration; a climb above height of release of 1000 metres, a distance flight of fifty kilometres.
· Gold C: A climb of 3000 metres above release height; a distance flight of 300 km.
· Diamonds are awarded to Gold C pilots for a 300 km flight to a pre-declared goal; a 500 km distance flight; a climb of 5000 metres above release.
· A special certificate is issued to any pilot making any kind of distance flight over 1000 km. At the time this article was written (1977) about 2200 pilots in the world had gained all three diamonds. Of the dozen 1000 km certificates awarded by that time Hans – Werner had five.
 Paul MacCready was a leading American soaring pilot in the post World War 2 years. The MacCready method of cross-country racing was widely adopted, supported by the so-called MacCready ring attached to the variometer in the cockpit. Electronic instruments and computers were not known at this time. Later, MacCready famously developed successful human-powered and solar powered aircraft.
The original Ka 6 had a slightly smaller wingspan than the Ka 6 CR which, with 15 metres span and a landing wheel, won the first design competition for the Standard Class sailplane of later years.
Germany at this time was divided into East and West separated by a rigidly guarded and defended frontier. It was highly dangerous for a sailplane from the west to enter the airspace of East Germany.
The convoys referred to were carrying military supplies to the port of Archangel in the USSR from Britain and the USA. Passing well inside the Arctic Circle they suffered heavy losses under attack from the air and by U boats.
Some of Hans-Werner’s records have been broken now (2013), many by stupendous flights in the waves of the Andes in South America. Hans-Werner nevertheless still holds the World records for distance round a triangular course, 1379.35 km, and speeds round triangles of 750 km, 161.33 km/hr, and 1250 km, 143.46 km /hr.