I was asked to write about the old Franklin Utility (PS2) Glider. I’ll do my darndest, but I cannot avoid writing about myself, because that’s what I can remember (We are talking about things that happened almost 70 years ago). For the same reason my account may lack accuracy. For example some of the names may be misspelled.
WALTER H. Lob (I warned you!)
I was born in Berlin, Germany in 1919. In my early teens some kind aunt or uncle gave me, as a birthday present, a German book about motorless flight. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker but, of course, considered it impossible that I would ever be able to actually DO it.
This book stated that, at the end of World War I the Versailles Treated forbade Germany the building of powered aircraft, and that this gave the impetus to the pursuing of powereless flight.
In September of 1938 I entered MIT as a sophomore in physics. At the Bursar’s office right next to the Building 10 lobby I paid a semester worth of tuition (can you believe $300?) As I was leaving that office I practically tripped over one wing of a Minemoa that was exhibited there in order to help recruit new members for the Aeronautical Engineering Society (AES). Well, they got me!
At that time the Minemoa, a German-made sailplane, was the last word in powerless flight. It had a fully cantilevered, high aspect ratio, tapered gull wing. It was designed for minimum sinking speed. (Later, the emphasis in sailplane design shifted to the glide ratio ( L to D) and later still to the speed at optimum L to D). This sailplane had belonged to a Hank Harris who, unfortunately, was killed when the car he was driving to tow up a glider at Elmira, NY, turned over in the U-turn at the end of the tow. The ridge where this happened was then dubbed “Harris Hill” and was the site for subsequent national soaring contests. Hank’s mother donated the Minemoa to the MIT AES. I saw a Minemoa, piloted by Chet Decker, perform in the two national soaring contests that I attended (1940 and 1941), and, I believe, he won at least one of the contests.
Actually, displaying that Minemoa wing in the Building 10 lobby was a bit of a deception. The sailplane had been declared unfit for flight as the glue had aged to the point of being unreliable.
The MIT AES was the professional society for the Aeronautical Engineering students. As such, it sponsored lectures and smokers. The glider club was a sub-set within the AES which absorbed most of the AES’s income. This was justified because it was the glider club members who did most of the work for the AES. When I joined the AES its president was ?? Sandorf who soon thereafter graduated and was followed by Roger Wheathoff as president and Ted Walcovitch as VP.
I remember Roger Wheathoff as a remarkable person, amazingly competent both as a leader and as a technician/mechanic. He rebuilt a Franklin wing at least once during my association with the club. He must have been instrumental in locating the AES in a construction building (Building 19) next to the Wright Brothers wind tunnel, and negotiating the acquisition of a Chrysler car (without the body) that, for 20 years, had been used in MIT’s Sloan Automotive Lab for research. (We had a faculty friend ?? Koppel who must have been instrumental in facilitating these feats.)
Speaking of rebuilding a wing: The main spar of a Franklin wing is constructed by gluing two wooden full-length planks together. So Roger placed the sandwich (wood-glue-wood) on the floor in the basement of Building 33 and weighed it down with bricks, only to discover at the end that the floor was not really level but had its ups and downs. So that wing had a slightly unorthodox main spar. But it worked just fine.
Then there was the episode with the dope. I forget why, but at one point the Franklin’s empennage needed to be recovered. For some reason, the airplane dope that we were using turned out to be awfully thick. Well, Roger didn’t believe in thinning dope. Instead he placed the can of dope on the steam radiator before spreading the dope onto the fabric. The hot dope spread quite nicely. But the end result was that the amount of dope that we got onto that empennage was considerably heavier than standard. So, our Franklin was a bit tail heavy. Therefore, when landing, the procedure was to fly the glider near the ground at a good clip and then easing the stick FORWARD! (Thirty years later I had a hard time getting out of the habit of those nose-down landings when flying other gliders.)
How do you teach piloting when all you have is a single-seater aircraft?
It’s really no great mystery. What you need is a rugged glider, an airport with a nice long runway, with sympathetic administration and with very little traffic, a tow car, and lots of rope or wire. (We started out using 3/8” ? manilla rope (At one point we talked the Plymouth Cordage Co. into donating some rope in exchange for having “Plymouth Cordage” written in big letters on the side of the glider while participating in the national soaring contest). Later we switched to using 1/8” ? music wire, which is much cheaper than rope but harder to work with.
The tow car was the ex Sloan Lab Chrysler which had been equipped with a wooden front seat, however no doors, roof, or windshield (I don’t remember how we passed the Massachusetts motor vehicle inspection which requires that you have a working windshield wiper). It did have a seat belt.
The airports we used at various times were at Fitchburg, MA., Concord N.H., Nashua N.H. and Carver, MA.
The glider was the Franklin PS-2 which had been donated to the AES by Allaire DuPont after it got damaged in a trailering accident. (Some members of the DuPont family were great glider enthusiasts; I think that it was they who surveyed the US and came up with the ridge at Elmira as the best location for the national soaring contests.)
So, at dawn, (calm air) you put the student into the glider, the instructor in the driver’s seat of the tow car, and some 200 ft of rope in between. Then you proceed to give the student a “ground tow”: Until the speed is adequate for control you have one helper run the wing tip. Another helper steers the tow car from the right-side seat while continuously shouting out the speed. The instructor, while looking back to see what the glider is doing, works the gas, clutch, and gear shift.
The instructor tows the glider at maybe 25 mph., not enough for the glider to become air borne, but enough to steer the glider with the rudder and keep the wings level with the ailerons. At least that’s the theory. Actually, the novice pilot will have a hard time balancing the glider on its single wheel while at the same time tracking an approximately straight course. There’ll be much zig-zagging and bouncing of the wing skids on the ground. But, eventually, after maybe five attempts, sometimes almost suddenly, something clicks and the ground tow straightens out (Whew!) At that point the instructor speeds up to allow the glider to lift off by a foot or so. (I remember that at that point I, at first, felt that I needed to hold everything still. I had to tell myself that the controls still work even though we are airborne.)
After that, things will proceed smoothly. With a longer tow rope the flights will gradually go up higher and the instructor will signal to the student to release the rope while airborne, thus experiencing free flight followed by a landing. If the airport has sufficient width, the student can begin doing 90 degree turns, then 180s, then 360s. I passed through these stages in the summer of 1939 at Concord, N.H. airport, which offered an ideal environment.
Since the tow imparted adequate flying speed to the glider, the student should be able to judge by the feel of the controls and the sound of the wind what proper airspeed should feel like. Wheathoff felt that there should be no instruments in the glider, to prevent the pilot from constantly looking at the instruments and ignoring everything else. This turned out to be a debatable point.
My memory is not too reliable about this, but I think the Franklin and I went to Elmira, NY at least three times. The first time may have been during the February vacation in 1940. This was my first soaring experience: ridge soaring off Harris Hill. Then, in the 1940 National Soaring Contest, I was part or the winch crew, using the MIT winch to launch the gliders off Harris Hill. I’m not sure, but I can’t imagine that we didn’t have the Franklin there and got some flights in. Then, in the 1941 contest, I was one of the contestants.
I don’t remember why we didn’t have the Chrysler towcar on Harris Hill that particular day in February, but I clearly remember that we talked a sight-seer into giving us a tow off Harris Hill with his car. There was a stiff NW breeze, ideal for ridge soaring. I told the guy that, because, of the head wind, he needed to go just 25 MPH. Well, he felt that if 25 MPH was good, 40 MPH must be better. Neither the Franklin nor I enjoyed an airspeed of maybe 60 MPH, so I released at maybe 200 ft altitude, about halfway down the runway. The result was a landing near the end of the runway, where the hill was sloping down fairly steeply. There I sat, holding the wings level in this strong headwind. Quite soon a club member came running up from behind: “What do we do now?” “Oh, just push it by the tail” I said. This he did, and with gravity helping, I was flying before you could say “Wow!” Not only that, but with the help of the ridge lift I had no trouble clearing the trees and gaining enough altitude to loop around and make a normal landing at the downwind end of the field.
I swear that originally it wasn’t my idea, but Wheathoff and Walcowitch decided that the Franklin and I could fly in the ’41 National Soaring Contest at Elmira. And, suddenly, the Franklin had an instrument panel with a compass, an airpeed indicator, an altimeter, and, most importantly, a pith-ball variometer with the obligatory thermos bottle.
I really don’t remember much about my first flight in the contest. I think it must have taken me maybe 12 miles to a field near Binghamton. But the second flight I remember clearly. It was an ideal soaring day: A nice NW wind for ridge lift, and bright sunshine for plenty of thermals. I remember that after the launch I headed straight into the wind while the variometer showed neither up nor down, at least for a while. And then the green ball went up and I started to circle. Not only did I have the variometer indication, but also I became aware that I could smell the thermal: A delightful pine tree smell. At about 5 K the thermal petered out and I had to decide what to do now. Well, I knew that the wind was from the NW, so to go maximum distance I should head SE. Good thing I had a compass! After a while, by gosh, there was another thermal, smelling of factory smoke. I think it also took me to about 5 K. Then straight flight to a landing in an up-sloping field near Rummerfield, PA, some 40 miles from Elmira.
In the contest the participants were divided into two classes: Class One for pilots who had a Silver C and Class Two for those who didn’t. Points were awarded for altitude, distance, and duration. Well, believe it or not, I came out tops (by just a few points) in Class Two.
Yes, we had those.
What, No Preflight?
For some reason, preflight inspections were missing from the culture at the AES. Perhaps, because we were constantly assembling the glider off he trailer and disassembling it back onto the trailer it was felt that that procedure took the place of a formal pre-flight inspection.
I remember two incidents:
I was sitting, ready for takeoff, in the Franklin at the take-off position on the Harris Hill runway. Having nothing else to do at the time I glanced at the right wing where the aileron was angling down somewhat. Then I looked at the left wing, and its aileron was also angling down somewhat. Hey, wait a minute, something is wrong here! So I got out and tried to find out what was going on.
Now, each Franklin wing has on its underside a couple of zippers. I had never touched these, nor can I remember anybody else working them. I pulled them open and looked in. Couldn’t see a thing, it was too dark in there. Then I remembered that in the glove compartment of the tow car there was a flashlight.
It turned out that the openings gave access to the bell cranks for the aileron linkages. And at one of the bell cranks the U-shaped aluminum support for the pivot had cracked off so that the pivot was dangling at a crazy angle!
Thank goodness, there was the Schweitzer ground school for aircraft maintenance right in town. They were wonderfully cooperative and helped me make and install a new U under professional supervision.
Another time, I again was sitting in the glider ready for take-off. Another pilot came by and told me to look at the cables that are part of the empennage. I said “Yes, I know, just one strand has failed” (I had noticed this while assembling the glider.) “I’ll take care of this after hours”. He said “Well, just take another look.” So I did and found that about half of the strands had parted company! Another trip to the ground school.
The one thing NOT to do is to fly too slow. Every student pilot has this drilled into him (her). And yet, I did exactly that (once). It was at Nashua NH airport. I don’t know exactly when I did something wrong. I just remember that I became aware that we were sinking at a very poor glide angle. I was wondering whether I was flying too slow. I moved the ailerons a little to see whether I had adequate control – then I gave a little forward stick, then back stick. Nothing seemed to be drastically wrong, except there was this miserable glide angle. Then, when we were at maybe six feet up and I pulled back for a landing I really stalled it and she dropped sharply. Thank goodness for the Franklin’s rugged construction! There was no damage.
Here is the reason why I must disagree with Roger Wheathoff’s philosophy about having no instruments in the glider.
One fine summer say we were having a ball flying on Concord NH airport. On one of my flights I thought I noticed a thermal just beyond the administration building. So the next flight I headed for that locale and circled. Whatever happened to that thermal? I found myself on the wrong side of the administration building with not enough altitude to clear it! I had no options. I leveled the wings, zoomed over the parking lot, over a picket fence and under an electric wire and found myself on a part of the airport that I even didn’t know existed. I managed a normal landing even though I was plenty shook up.
I have mentioned the February trip to Elmira. It was brought to a spectacular end when one of the guys (not I) got caught too low behind a snow fence. The Franklin’s nose smashed through some wooden slats of the fence with little damage, but the left-hand struts got taken out by one of the fence’s steel posts. Both wings rose up to form a picturesque V while the fuselage dropped to the ground, got stuck in a ditch, and the tail went up and over. The only damage to the pilot occurred when he released the seat belt and landed on his head in the dirt.
Then we had a new member with plenty of power time but no glider experience. We figured we could afford to tow him up to maximum altitude. This I did, and when I next looked up the Franklin was in a spin! (This might not have happened if there had been an airspeed indicator in the glider, Roger.) It spun down to maybe half its original altitude and then, probably due to the extra weight of the tail, the spin flattened out and became a flat spin. Flat spins have a bad reputation in that it is almost impossible to recover from one. But this time it turned out that the flattening out probably saved this guy’s life, because, instead of hitting the ground nose down, the glider hit on one wing tip and the wheel. The pilot walked away.
Early Fall 1941, I was sound asleep in my room in the MIT Graduate House – around 2:00 AM I was awakened by a club member who informed me that the Franklin had just burned to bits. They had been trailering the glider, and one of the wings managed to jump off its support, which left the wing leaning against the trailer tire. The friction set it ablaze. This happened just outside the Braintree fire station. The firemen got there just in time to put out the trailer!
Then there was Pearl Harbor, gas rationing, aviation supplies unavailable. I lost track of what was left of the Franklin and of the AES.
Walter Lob Newton, Mass., October 2007
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