Let's Go FlyingJun 30, 2021 03:10PM ● By Mike Cutillo
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
~Leonardo da Vinci, all-around genius
“There are so many lovely sailplanes. To see then all flying together is really quite a sight. It’s a feast for the eyes.”
~Trafford Doherty, Director, National Soaring Museum
Many may know Elmira as the one-time home of such luminaries as Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, astronaut Eileen Collins, fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger, and writer Samuel Langhorne Clemens, infinitely better recognized by his pen name, Mark Twain.
What may not be so readily known is that Elmira—thanks to its topography and the foresight of Chemung County officials—not only is the “Soaring Capital of America” but the veritable birthplace of the sport of gliding, as in using wind currents and other forces of nature to pilot a motorless aircraft quietly and romantically over green and scenic hills and dales.
And it’s specific types of gliders—known as sailplanes—that will be celebrated in all their colorful splendor on Elmira’s historic Harris Hill July 10 to 17 at the International Vintage Sailplane Meet.
Held every four or five years since 1995, the IVSM was scheduled to go off last year but was “clobbered by COVID,” as National Soaring Museum Executive Director Trafford Doherty so eloquently and alliteratively puts it. The family-friendly event is different from a competition; it’s more of a showcase of the eye-catching sailplanes. As Trafford explained, in competitions, the planes take off and sometimes are gone for hours before returning, while at the IVSM they are constantly taking off, gliding through the air for a bit, then landing, to the delight of spectators—both aviation fans and fans-to-be.
“For those of us who are sailplane enthusiasts, it’s really quite a thing, and for the average folks, it’s a great spectator sport because you get to see some continued activity,” Trafford says. “This is really quite a thing for everyone.”
But why Harris Hill and Elmira, you may be asking?
It goes back to 1930 when Chemung County and Elmira city officials decided they wanted soaring, a popular activity in the immediate area, to become an attraction that would draw people from all over the world.
“They went to great lengths to lure the National Glider Association, the NGA, to have their first contest here, flying off South Mountain, which is south of the city,” Trafford says. “In 1934, the county purchased the land that would become Harris Hill. It was farmland, and up until then they had been flying at half a dozen different hills, but when the county acquired the land, leveled it out, did this, that, and the other thing, all of a sudden glider enthusiasts had an 1,800-foot runway, so they didn’t have to do the old shot cord [think slingshot] launches. In 1937, they started using airplanes to launch the gliders, and they still use them to this day.”
Gliders were developed in the 1920s primarily for recreational purposes. Sailplanes came along a bit later and have been used in military training. They differ from gliders in that they can ascend in altitude—or soar—as pilots use updrafts, usually warmer or thermal air, to climb sometimes thousands of feet in the air.
And yes, they can stay aloft, literally, for hours.
And yes, the topography around Elmira is perfect for the sport.
“In this area, there are ridges facing any direction on the compass practically,” Trafford explains. “So back then, the only time there was soaring to be done was slope soaring on a windy day. If you had a wind blowing, somewhere around Elmira, there was a ridge facing that direction of the wind, whichever way it was coming. That’s why they selected Elmira as the official American [gliding] contest site.”
But, back to today and to the IVSM, which is indeed a week long, draws sailplane owners, pilots and aficionados from all over the country, and includes social gatherings, banquets, daily presentations at the National Soaring Museum, food trucks, and a nearby amusement park for kids. Currently sponsored by the NSM, the Vintage Sailplane Association, and the Harris Hill Soaring Corporation, it glided into Elmira because of all of the infrastructure in place.
“The local soaring club, in conjunction with the Schweizer Aircraft Company and the National Soaring Museum, [it was] between the three of those entities the idea came up to have a vintage glider meet, and it became the IVSM,” Trafford says. “You won’t be having these things elsewhere in the country, not formal ones called IVSMs. So it’s history before your eyes.”
Schweizer, in fact, holds much personal meaning for him. It’s where his father took a job in 1959, moving the family from Hammondsport to Horseheads. Trafford learned to fly at the Schweizer Flying School and spent a lot of time at the local airport. He eventually moved back to Hammondsport to serve as director of the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum there for fourteen years, but returned to Horseheads in 2002 and has been director of the NSM for the past five years.
His father also owned a Laister-Kauffman sailplane, also known as an LK. These planes were manufactured in the United States during World War II to help train cargo glider pilots.
“He named it Goldilocks, and he sold the darn thing when I was young,” Trafford recalls with a laugh. “But there is a beautiful LK that comes to the IVSM, beautifully restored in its WWII colors with yellow wings and blue fuselage.”
It will be one of over thirty vibrant, colorful, and historic aircraft gliding peacefully over the Southern Tier for a week in July, and making people, as da Vinci said, cast their eyes skyward.
Call (607) 734-3128 or visit vintagesailplane.org for more details.