The Pirat Gehriger Award

The Pirat Gehriger award.

I confess I had barely heard of the Pirat Gehriger award when, out of the blue, I received a congratulatory E-mail from my model flying friend Brian Pettit in England. This was followed almost within the hour by a long distance phone call from the great pilot Hans Werner Grosse, another old friend, in Lübeck. It was about a month later that I had official confirmation from the current President of the Gliding Commission, Bob Henderson in New Zealand.

I had met Pirat Gehriger a couple of times very briefly, when he was President of the FAI Gliding Commission. He was a brilliant and forceful man (hence the ‘Pirat’). He was Swiss but spoke many languages and knew everybody. He died some years ago and the Gehriger Award was established as his memorial. It is made annually for, I quote, eminent services to international gliding.

My own contribution, according to the official citation, is chiefly my books about gliders, especially the three most recent volumes under the general title Sailplanes and covering the decades from 1920 to 2000. They were published in Germany in the years 2001, 2002 and 2004. and are available in both English and German languages. The translation to German was done by the publisher, Klaus Fey. Klaus is a well-known pilot and gliding instructor in his own country. He had seen my earlier books and believed there was a demand for more. I am relieved to say, he was right. His large and risky investment has been justified; the books are in demand and all three volumes have been reprinted. I do not believe any one else in the world would have published them, nor would anyone else have done such an outstanding job with the layout and production. I told him the award should have been shared between us.

I have been asked how long it took me to do the work. In a sense, it took seventy years. I first saw gliders in 1939 when I was a child of nine. I was utterly fascinated and began to collect all I could find about these wonderful and beautiful aircraft. I still have some of the little clippings from magazines that I saved, and all the books I was able to get hold of. The first of all was what I now realise was a rather awful story by Ann Edmunds (who became Ann Douglas and then Ann Welch). It was about a posh English teenaged boy and girl who got into gliding. Their family had servants and an odd job man who built an H – 17 for them to fly. Wow! Lucky kids!

I made many notes about the various gliders and I recall borrowing my father’s typewriter to make my childish scribbles more legible. If he had known I had touched his precious machine he would have been furious. But that’s how I began learning to type, pecking away with one finger. I accumulated a large collection of files and over the years a respectable library of gliding books, chiefly in the English language but some German, French, Italian, Polish, Swedish, Czech, Hungarian and Russian. I have not counted all the photographs but there are thousands, some were taken by me but for the older aircraft, mostly by other people.

When it came to preparing the books themselves, I began with the drawings. These are not merely copied from other published works. I use the Adobe Illustrator drawing program which is highly accurate and adaptable. The computer saves no time but enables me to do a much better and more accurate job. Beginning with a blank, every line, dot and shade has to be drawn on the screen, there are no short cuts. In the three volumes altogether there are about 360 full page scale drawings. Each took about three days work, sometimes more, never less,

I have used the most accurate sources I could find for the information. I visited museums, libraries and glider factories in England, America, Germany and Switzerland, and raided the drawing offices of some of the famous German student Akafliegs, especially Darmsatdt, München and Stuttgart. (My adventures in Slingsby’s rat-ridden loft in Yorkshire, deserve a whole, extended account which is to be found on another page under ‘Other Writing’ here.)

Where I could not visit, I wrote numerous letters and, when possible, sent copies of my drawings to the designers for their approval, or corrections. Most of these eminent people were very helpful. One of the old time designers sent his grandson down into family’s damp and cold basement to find the original construction drawings for me. I tried, without success, to get into the aviation libraries in Moscow and Leningrad when I was there on holiday during the seventies. (Rather surprisingly, despite the cold war, they did their best to help when I approached them formally in writing.)

The drawings done, writing the accompanying text was relatively easy although on many occasions I still had to dig into ancient records, even on some occasions paying for translations to be done. (The extraordinary Hungarian KM – 400 was a case in point here.)

So when I say these books took a few years to do, it is an underestimate. They took a large chunk of my life. It is very pleasing to have them accepted and recognised. But the truth is, I would not have done any of it if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

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