The Skullsplitter

How we retrieved the Skullsplitter from Friedrichshafen

Any excuse is good enough for an air show. In 1983 the city of Friedrichshafen on the shore of Lake Geneva had a very good excuse. It was 400 years since the very first successful manned flights. In November 1783 two men were carried aloft in the Montgolfier brother’s hot air balloon. In the following month the first hydrogen-filled balloon took off. These flights were in France but Friedrichshafen had a very special connection with lighter than aircraft. This was where the Zeppelin airships had been built. By 1910 a fleet of these huge aircraft was working commercially, carrying passengers in a regular shuttle service between the leading German cities, the world’s first commercial airline service; cause enough for celebration.

My friend Klaus Heyn in Stuttgart had built, from ancient plans, several perfect replicas of old gliders. When I visited the family his current project was a 17 metre Rhönadler, a type that had been produced in quantity before 1936 but of which no complete example had survived. When it was completed Klaus planned to take the roof off his house and hire a crane to get the ’Adler out of the attic. There was no other reasonable way out for it. Klaus was, and is, a very reasonable man as well as a superb craftsman. (See also Saving the Slingsby Archives on another page here.)

After admiring his progress with the work I discovered I had volunteered to help him bring home, from Friedrichshafen, a glider he had built and lent for display in static exhibition along with some other gliders of various periods. This type of basic training glider was called, in German, the Schädelspalter, meaning skullsplitter. There was a stout wooden strut immediately in front of the pilot, so in a bad landing an impact with the head was inevitable. This aircraft had been designed and built in hundreds at Grunau in Silesia by Edmund Schneider, whose son Harry lives now in the Adelaide Hills. Harry swears that no one ever did split their skull when crashing in his father’s product. They all wore padded headgear.

Klaus Heyn with his Grunau – 9 Schädelspalter replica

We were to drive to Friedrichshafen with a brilliantly orange coloured furniture van, lent to Klaus by a friendly removalist (glider pilot). Klaus, Renate his wife and their teenaged daughter, Silke, would follow the van in their Mercedes. I protested, I was not allowed to drive heavy goods vehicles in Germany. I had no need to worry; the driver would be Ulli Seifert, an architect (glider pilot). My job was only to keep him company, help if help was needed. I must feed him on chocolate.

The orange van

Ulli was a very reasonable man and a good driver. I was given a length of strong cord to hold. This was attached at the other end to the accelerator pedal, which, Ulli had discovered, tended to stick in the ‘flat to the floor’ position. I was to watch the pedal and when Ulli’s foot came off, yank the cord to unstick it. Off we went, undeterred by the snow that began to fall. As requested, I gave him a piece of chocolate. The Mercedes followed us closely, so close that we could not see it in the wing mirrors on either side. We came to the Schawbische Alb, a great limestone escarpment that stretches right across southern Germany. The railway that crossed this feature, Ulli said, needed auxiliary locomotives to push the train up the gradient. He only needed another piece of chocolate.

I thought the Mercedes might have to push us, as the snow became thicker and we ground up the slope. As we reached the crest the side wind was very strong, causing us to sway from side to side and wobble. The snow plastered one side of the van completely.

Ulli mentioned that he preferred his chocolate four pieces at a time.

The architect within him came to the fore as we approached the ancient city of Ulm.

There’s no place like Ulm. That sounded familiar!

The spire of the church here, I learned, was the highest in all Europe. I should admire the wonderful mediaeval houses that crowded in upon us in the narrow streets. Ulli recapitulated for me the story of the tailor Albrecht Berblinger who had built himself a flying machine with which, in 1811, he had promised to fly across the Danube. Fortunately the tailor of Ulm was rescued from the river before he drowned.

More chocolate.

We crossed the Danube safely to pass though a tree nursery on the far side, and drove on, fuelled by more chocolate. The skies were still laden with snow but as we neared the great lake it was melting as rapidly as it fell. We rolled on and soon we could see distantly but dimly on our left the Austrian Alps. The town of Ravensburg reminded me of a trademark I had seen on one of my children’s woolly toys. It was a town famous for woven goods, I learned.

A single aeroplane came distantly into sight, performing aerobatics in the limited space between the clouds and the ground. Time for chocolate.

As we ran into our destination city, Ulli needed help with navigation as well as more chocolate. On his first visit earlier in the month with this same van, he confessed, he had become lost and had been suddenly confronted by a low bridge under which the van could not pass. Belatedly he discovered that he did not know how to reverse the vehicle. The traffic behind him was held up. There was chaos. He thought rescue was at hand when a large automotive factory, whose gates opened onto the road nearby, reached the end of a shift and hundreds of workers emerged. Surely some of these excellent fellows would know how to engage reverse gear. Not so. Each individual could make a piece of a car or truck, but did not need to know how to get into reverse gear on this particular model. They could, however, push, and did so, making room for the van to turn round, after which Ulli found the air show. He promised me, he now did know now how to reverse. It was simply a matter of pulling the lever up before pushing it forward. With ample supplies of confectionary, we found the airfield entrance safely.

It was indeed a tremendous exhibition with several vast halls with every kind of aircraft imaginable on display, including balloons, a small Zeppelin, (still seeming enormously large), gliders ancient and modern, and inevitably aerial displays by gliders, ordinary aeroplanes, helicopters and fast jet fighters.

The Skullsplitter, which we had come to collect, was hung high up near the roof of the largest hall and there seemed no way we would ever be able to get it down. There were other aircraft immediately underneath it and we would have to wait till tomorrow for them to be removed first. Klaus had anticipated this and reserved hotel accommodation for us.

The Skullsplitter hanging in the Freidrichshafen show

The space beneath having been cleared we were ready to proceed, but needed a cherry picker to get up to the roof. Yes, we found out, there was one available because they had needed it at the opening ceremony, to rescue a Government Minister. What? Say that again!

The intention had been good and the historical reference very appropriate. Four hundred years after the first balloon flight, the Minister, inside the highest hangar on the airfield, would get into a basket suspended below a balloon tethered securely at ground level . The band would play, the assembled crowd would cheer, the balloon would be allowed to rise gently to the high rafters. Suspended between the roof and the ground, the Minister in his basket made his speech with all the proper remarks and expressions of gratitude to the organisers and their staff.

The Aero 1983 Friedrichshafen exhibition was open. Cheers! Now the Minister could descend.

Only he couldn’t.

Something had stuck; the balloon would not come down. Cheers turned to chuckles, the chuckles to laughter. The Minister had to be saved by the cherry picker, which was quite some time arriving.

We now used it to rescue the Skullsplitter, lowered it carefully, took it to pieces, bought sufficient  chocolate, and drove back to Stuttgart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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