Back in 2019, at the Shuttleworth Military Airshow, I was amazed when I saw the below glider displayed through a jaw dropping series of loops and chandelles before landing perfectly show centre on the Old Warden turf. I wanted to know more and several months later found myself on the phone to the glider's owner, Andrew Jarvis, who also happened to be President of the Vintage Glider Club. A formal phone interview was undertaken in October 2020 in the turmoils of the pandemic. I was also able to speak to the glider display pilot, Graham Saw, the plan being to write an article on owning and displaying the glider, which I now knew was a Slingsby T21 Sedbergh!
As with any pitch, the Editor's and the author's vision may differ somewhat and the article itself metamorphosed into a fascinating journey into the history of the Air Training Corps and its fleet of primarily Slingsby designed wooden gliders that appeared in the June 2021 issue of Aeroplane. However, I didn't want to waste the great material I had from the initial idea and so have put this together below. I hope you enjoy the read!
Specialist glider pilot Graham Saw displays Andrew Jarvis' Slingsby T21 Sedbergh TX.1 'WJ306' at the Shuttleworth Military Airshow in July 2019.
Aviationphoto interviews Andrew Jarvis, President of the Vintage Glider Club, about owning and flying vintage ex-Air Training Corps (ATC) Slinsgby T21 Sedbergh ‘WJ306’ and early gliding with the Combined Cadet Force. We then hear from renowned glider pilot Graham Saw about what it is like to display the ‘Barge.’
A - You’ve owned Slingsby T21 Sedbergh ‘WJ306’ for a number of years now and enjoy flying the glider from Parham Airfield in West Sussex. Can you tell me about your association with the aircraft.
AJ - My friend Paul Marriott bought the T21 in 1994 from the Yorkshire Gliding Club, which is a very long established gliding club. It was in quite shabby condition but we flew it for 10 or 11 years, still in its rather shabby condition. We kept talking about getting it re-covered, although a great friend said to me, “You know when you take the covering off you don’t know what you’re going to find underneath,” and that proved to be very true!
Following advice I took it to SZD gliders in Poland, which is fairly near the border with Germany, and I took it first to a vintage glider club rally at an aerodrome on the outskirts of Berlin. I left the rally early and we dismantled the glider and loaded it onto this horrible open trailer and took it down the autobahn to Dresden, turned left at Dresden and then drove another 100 miles to the border at Gorlitz. It was a proper border then with guards and everything and it was quite funny as they said in the traditional way, “Papers, documents for this trailer.” I had some old ATC documents which I showed them and that seemed to satisfy them and so we got to the glider works.
They’d never seen a T21 before but it’s basically the same as a single seater just bigger. They then embarked on a fantastic six month long restoration. Towards the end of the restoration the works manager asked me for the full details of the RAF colours that I wanted which was the RAF 1950s colour scheme which I much prefer. There was the question of the serial number and we didn’t know the serial of the glider so I said I’d like it to be WJ306 as this was the first glider I flew with the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) at Hendon and so that’s what happened. It turned out to be a very bad choice because the genuine WJ306, unknown to me, was alive and well and is still flying regularly with the Oxford Gliding Club, and so embarrassingly we have had rallies where there have been two WJ306s but I can’t change it now!
A - Interestingly you gained your initial glider pilot training through the Combined Cadet Force rather than direct through the ATC. Can you tell us about that experience.
AJ - Schools often had a Combined Cadet Force and that’s how it was in the 60s, things were much more military. Friday afternoon was the cadets or corps as it was called and you had to do a year in the army wearing this horrible scratchy uniform. Then, if you wanted to, you could stay in the army or the navy or the air force and, of course, it was only one choice for me and so I stayed in the RAF section. We went on this ATC gliding course and I think it was called 617 like the Dambusters ATC Squadron at Hendon and they had those wonderful Hendon hangars full of gliders. There were about fifteen of us on the course and everybody went solo and you had around about thirty launches or so and everyone managed to do 3 circuits in a T31. You had 2 introductory ones in the T21 and then you embarked on your basic glider training in the T31 and that was how it was done.
Slingsby T31 Cadet Mk3 XA308 of 621 Volunteer Gliding Squadron at Weston-super-Mare - picture credit Andy Davey
A - From the 1960s onwards, the ATC gliding fleet was primarily made up of the side by side seat T21 and tandem seat T31 gliders. Can you tell us what both types were like to fly.
AJ - In the cadets I believe they were referred to as the ‘barge’ and the ‘brick’ respectively. The ‘barge,’ the T21, if you were uncharitable you could say it just wallows around the sky, it didn’t really but it does wallow if you let it wallow but you can fly it very crisply and you can thermal it as I was yesterday. You can corkscrew it round in a tight thermaling turn and it has this amazing and wonderfully low stalling speed. You can turn on a thermal at 28 knots and it really is amazing. You can turn on a wingtip because it is really an enlarged single seater and all its handling is really gentle. The really worst thing about it is with that huge blunt nose it just can’t penetrate into wind. If you had a headwind of say 15 miles an hour you really do come down, you don’t get anywhere and that catches people out.
Now the other one, the T31, flies a bit faster and I think you’d have to thermal that at 35 knots minimum and it has much crisper handling and it’s unforgiving. If you hold the control stick half an inch forward of neutral you will go into a dive. Half an inch back it will start climbing and then stall and so forth. I think it would be a tool to teach much more accurate flying and I do believe an indifferent pilot could blunder around in a T21 indefinitely without becoming precise at flying. Both of them had a little dihedral but the wing on the T31 is almost level and you know dihedral gives you automatic stability. Mind you, they both have what you might call pendulum stability because you’ve got the high wing mounted on a little pylon and therefore the whole structure hangs underneath it and that does give you automatic stability, but there was so little dihedral on the T31 that again it means you’ve got to concentrate to keep the wings level, they won’t stay level themselves. You can take your hands and your feet off the controls in the T21 and it wouldn’t fly accurately but it would probably keep flying for a few minutes without you having to do anything to it at all but I think in the T31, which I’ve flown very much less, it would probably go into a dive and you’d have to do something so therefore I think that makes it a better trainer.
A - You discovered an ATC base near Christchurch when you were younger and liked to watch the goings on of the various gliders. What did that look like compared to today’s operations?
AJ - Yes, a place I used to be a bit familiar with was Christchurch because my grandma had a lovely little house on Christchurch harbour and I soon discovered there was an active ATC base a ten minute cycle away [this would have been the RAF’s 622 Gliding School at Christchurch airfield - Ed] They had a long airfield where Airspeed had built things like the Ambassador and later de Havilland built the Sea Vixen. That was in the 1960s [the de Havilland factory closed in 1962 and the airfield followed suite at the end of 1964 - Ed] so there was a long runway, just one runway, and the gliding group would either be in one direction or the other. They had these big petrol driven winches which I believe were often converted from balloon winches from World War Two and the gliders were, as always, T21s and T31s.
It was really good fun as a spectator as there was a little place where you could be quite near to where they landed. In those days the finals part of circuit was much, much lower. Nowadays we’re supposed to do our final turn at 300 feet but in those days the final turn would be not much higher than chimney top height over those surrounding bungalows. You could hear the instructors talking with the open cockpit as they sort of skimmed the TV aerials of the bungalows, it was lovely. The winching operation was done in twos so there were normally two cables. The Landrover would tow the cables out and up would go cable number 1 with a glider on it and then cable number 2 and so it goes on throughout the day. The gliders were generally retrieved by pushing them back to the launch point whereas nowadays we usually use a vehicle because it’s quicker.
A - As President of the Vintage Glider Club, could you tell us a little bit about this fantastic organisation.
AJ - The Vintage Glider Club really is a very special organisation. It was founded in 1973 by a remarkable man called Chris Wills. I often think of him as being like Patrick Moore, a larger than life character with a lovely gently personality, a huge brain and also very musical. He was one of the friends of Philip Wills who was Britain’s greatest glider pilot in the pre-war and post-war eras. Incidentally there is another brother in the family, Justin Wills, who is a top glider pilot based in New Zealand. Chris’ passion was to form a club so that people could fly the old time gliders and meet every year and have annual rallies in a different country every year because he was a true internationalist.
From the word go the club had a big component of German members because gliding, as we know it, is basically a German invention dating back to the that inter war Treaty of Versailles business. All the mechanics of gliding were virtually invented in Germany. Even the T21, which looks so big, is an enlarged German single seater, the Grunau Baby. Chris Wills was fluent in German and had countless gliding friends from the country and the ethos of the club has remained one hundred percent international ever since, even though it is the VGC Ltd and the club has its offices in the UK.
Essentially what we do is we have our rallies. People often wonder what happens at our rallies and assume it is some sort of competition but it isn’t at all, were the most noncompetitive glider pilots in the world. To some of us, including me, modern gliding is all about competitions. It’s all about the extension of the school sports day which was my worst day of the year! I was never any good at sports so we’re not competitive, although no one likes being out climbed in a thermal! We all want to hold our own in a thermal, which is a little kind of micro-competition in a way to see who can climb the fastest in an up current, but mainly it’s all about exchange of information and comradeship and all that. Of course, the internet has facilitated it in many ways and in this ghastly corona year we’re having our meetings on zoom with degrees of success, and we have our fantastic magazine which comes out 3 times a year.
A - Andrew, it has been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today, thank you very much for your time!
For more information about the Vintage Glider Club please visit https://vintagegliderclub.org/
Displaying the 'Barge'
Aviationphoto speaks to Graham Saw about his gliding experiences and what it is like to display the T21.
A - Can you tell us how you got into gliding?
GS - When I was at school, my history master, Lionel Pike, was a keen glider pilot, gliding at Lasham with the Army Gliding Club. He took a few of us to Lasham where we flew a T21 (Daisy) borrowed from the Air Scouts. One 3 minute flight from a car launch hooked me on gliding. Later, each Easter holiday, he took us to Lasham for more flights and I went solo in that T21.
A - What attracted you to vintage gliders?
GS - Modern gliders have been developed to give outstanding performance with well harmonised control – a bit like modern cars compared to old. Flying vintage, wooden gliders with low performance and sometimes quirky handling gives them more character and are fun to fly. You always land with a grin!
A - How does the T21 compare with other gliders for aerobatics?
GS - The T21 was not designed for aerobatics but is a strong glider for training. The particular T21 I displayed at the Shuttleworth Military Airshow, in TX1 WJ306 colours and owned by Andrew Jarvis, has been totally rebuilt recently, so I had no worries with the condition of the glider, for simple aerobatics. Being a high drag, low energy machine, with heavy aileron stick loads at speed you would certainly not use it for aerobatic competitions! Vintage wooden gliders designed for aerobatics like the German Habicht, Lo 100 and the Czechoslovakian Letov LF107 Lunak have much better control authority as well as having a much larger flight envelope. Modern GRP aerobatic gliders, like the Fox and Swift are far more suited to the complex figures flown in serious competitions today, partly due to their lower drag helping to maintain their energy.
A - Can you tell me about displaying the T21? What challenges does it present? Does flying it solo affect the handling compared to having a passenger?
GS - When you display any glider, you are considering what shows off that particular type in the best way for the general public, as well as for photographers. This particular T21 has a striking silver colour scheme that shows off well on a top-side view as well as from underneath, coupled with a pleasing and unique shape. Displaying with simple loops, chandelles and tight turns along the display line should bring out the grace and character of this glider. Considering any aerobatics with this type of glider you should be mindful of the relatively small flight envelope and restrict the ‘G’ loads induced and speeds accordingly, by flying smoothly. Certainly, flying solo means that you can use a lower speed for entry into a loop than if you had a higher cockpit load, with two people.
A - Have you flown a Cadet Mk3? If so, how would you compare this with the T21?
GS - The Cadet Mk3 (Slingsby T31, or Tandem Tutor) has more drag and a higher wing loading than the T21, so does not climb so well in a thermal, but is also great fun to fly! In the Vintage Glider Club there are many T31s and T21s being flown and enjoyed all over the world.
A - What has been your most memorable gliding experience?
GS - I have many memorable gliding experiences so it is impossible to pick out one or two. On an achievement level, taking a vintage wooden aerobatic glider to an aerobatic world championships and not coming last against the latest GRP gliders gave me a real buzz for some time! On a more relaxed level of enjoyment, looking across at twenty or thirty other vintage gliders from an open cockpit, above the Alps or flying in formation with other gull-wing gliders on a beautiful summer’s evening, it's all special!
A - Graham, thank you for taking the time to share your experiences.