Fifty Years of WSSA

In the October 2009 issue of Soaring Magazine, Art Davis wrote a history called “White Sands Soaring Association: Alive and Well at Fifty”. If you are a member of the Soaring Society of America, you can read it in their archives of the “Soaring” magazines. I present the text here for those who don’t have access to those archives.  [By Larry Bogan]

White Sands Soaring Association: Alive and Well at Fifty

by Art Davis
(published Oct 2009 in Soaring magazine on page 14)

About the author : Art Davis has been a WSSA member since 1976, and has served in the capacity of Treasurer for many years, as well as a tow-pilot since 1999. Current member George Fish, along with former members, Rex Stage, Dave &Jill Fletcher, and Alwin Kroh, contributed to this article. Some documentation left behind by Howard Ebersole, as well as a letter written to him by Larry Edgar was also of great benefit.

The White Sands Soaring Association (WSSA) is celebrating its fiftieth year as a non-profit, all volunteer soaring organization. The New Mexico association, based in Alamogordo/ White Sands Regional Airport for most of its existence, was launched by a group of Air Force pilots and other personnel stationed at nearby Holloman AFB. As scant written records hjave it, the founding members had a prliminary meeting in late 1958 and actually chipped in to buy equipment in the spring of 1959. A local individual interested in the successful formation of the Association loaned the organizers $500.00 in order to buy the initial equipment. By September 1959 the organization was in the air using a Schweizer TG -3 and a rare Timm tow plane, although some activity took place in the glider earlier with a privately owned tow plane. Although details are sketchy, the Timm was damaged and re placed with a Fairchild PT-23 in 1960. Due to finances, the PT-23 was actually purchased by an individual member, Larry Edgar who, for hangaring and insurance costs, let the Association continue using it after he was transferred to an USAF assignment in Alaska. WSSA was finally able to purchase it from him in 1964. The TG-3 was eventually sold and upgraded to a 2-22 and 1- 26.

As with all fully volunteer operations, the Association’s longevity has not been without some difficult times (also known as “sink”) along the way. As with all military installations, Holloman’s population tended to be highly mobile, which of ten contributed to a lack of interest and continuity in management oversight in the Association’s early and formative years. Fortunately, a few non-military locals got involved, and some military members chose Alamogordo as a retirement home . As a result , WSSA only incurred one extended period of inactivity for about one and one-half years in the mid-70’s. That period was actually the result of some damaged equipment that occurred when a dust­devil flipped the 2-22 on its back and a tow pilot taxied too fast off of a high­speed taxi way, collapsing a landing gear.

With the help of several members who loaned the Association money (some of whom were never totally repaid, one family in particular), the 2-22 and tow plane were restored to airworthy condition. The particular family, local business owner C]. (Chuck) Dugan and his sons, Mark and Hank, contributed an und iscl osed amount of money to complete the necessary repairs. They also later provided funding to recover the Association’s 1- 26 when it would no longer pass the fabric punch test. Chuck was a former WWlI Navy carrier pilot, and his son’s were both licensed power and glider pilots. They simply did not want to see WSSA’s equipment surrendered to other non profit organizations, as was called for in organizational documents in event the Association became in solvent or permanently dormant. Plus, as will be addressed later, Chuck had a sentimental attachment to the PT-23 tow -plane.

Since 1976, WSSA has never been in active for more than a month or so, when tow plane engine replacement or other major tow plane repairs were necessary. For the first few years after 1976 when I first became involved, we were mostly a bore-holes-in -the-sky club, although it is my understanding that there was some cross-country activity in the ’60’s and early 70’s. In the early 1980’s, Jim Day and Dave Fletcher, along with their Club Astir and Standard Prue, respectively, moved into the area, and thus began our transition into a true soaring operation. Jim flew the first certified 1,000km, out-and-return flight originating within the state of New Mexico-Alamogordo -Ft Garland, Co.

Dave’s wife, Jill , eventually joined the association and soon became the first and only lady CFIG in the Association’s history. Dave was also a CFIG, so they als o bec ame the first and only husband­wife CFIG team in WSSA hi story.Jill also helped out administratively with billing and other Association duties. After some heated board meetings, we finally decided to replace the PT-23 tow plane with a Bellanca Scout. As sad a day as it was for Chuck Dugan, who took his primary instruction in the WWII trainer, the savings in fuel cost alone proved to be almost 50%. It was also observed that we had almost as many members who joined for the privilege of flying a WWII relic as we had who joined to fly sailplanes. There is little doubt that Chuck’s sentimental attachment to the PT-23 prob ably saved the Association from extinction during a difficult time; it was not an easy decision to impose upon him, but probably a necessary one. After several mishaps the Scout eventually was re placed with the Association’s present tow plane, a Cessna 182, as well as an enhanced pool of tow pilot availability, due to too few qualified tail dragger pilots.

Jim also convinced the Board to replace the green-ball, red-ball varios with upgraded mechanical and compensated electric models, although some of the old-timers contended that it was still more “seat-of-pants” than instrumentation. Probably still a debatable point with some during hangar flying sessions!

Some of the more memorable events and individuals in the Associatton’s fifty-year history are probably too many to remember, and some will likely be missed, though not intentionally. In addition to the above-mentioned accomplishment, another of Jim’s was the famous picture of him flying his Club Astir under the Taos Gorge Bridge while dumping water ballast .Jim passed away in 1995 of Lou Gehrig’s disease, so we don’t worry too much if the FAA finds out who piloted the “under-fly.” It’s probably not good subject matter for the “Safety Corner,” but definitely for ‘Jim Day.” Jim was the eternal optimist when it came to soaring, and probably never met a person, particularly a soaring person, that he could not connect with. His contributions to the Association’s current success are immeasurable. His ability to connect with people led to an annual event WSSA sponsored for about 12 years during the Thanksgiving holidays, which became dubbed TurkeyFest. Starting with a small group of enthusiasts from the Caprock Soaring Club, based out of Littlefield, Texas, it soon expanded to a dedicated annual group from the Albuquerque Soaring Club, and eventually attracted soaring pilots from all over the country to try out our local area conditions during what is norm ally the off season. It also helped the Association out financially as well. The soaring was great some years, and not so great other years, but all had a good time in any case due to Jim’s eternal optimism. Although an accurate account was never documented, a good number of pilots attained their diamond altitude badge during Turkeyfest’s good years in the nearby Sacramento Mountains ‘Wave Window which was established through an agreement between WSSA, the FAA and Holloman AFB. Jim, who was a licensed general and electrical contractor, also spearheaded the construction of our current hangar and clubhouse facilities. With the exception of the foundation, the facility was erected from prefabricated metal and finished Out by Association members under Jim’s tutelage.

While many of our past members will probably never be memorialized in history books or documentaries, they nonetheless have some interesting backgrounds that probably helped us achieve our fiftieth anniversary. Howard Ebersole was an original 1959 founding member of WSSA who returned to Alamogordo in the late 90’s, primarily to be involved with the organization which he helped found. Howard was a decorated veteran of the Army Air Corps where he flew bombers in Europe during WWTT, and later P-51 Mustangs and F-86 Sabre jets in Korea for the USAF Upon military retirement, he was also active with Mississippi State University and other research facilities, where he was actively involved in glider and other aviation development. He is an inductee of the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. Upon his return to WSSA, he was active as an instructor and mentor until a year bef ore his death in
2004.

An interesting member, who was a little before my time, was Ernest Steinhoff, one of the scientists who was recruited from Germany after WWII to help expand US rocketry science based on the V-2 technology. I only heard him speak once at a local civic club. As I recall, once he started talking, it was difficult to get him to stop. He was interesting and had some fascinating dialogue about how he was brought into the country. One passed-on story has it that he once attempted a sailplane cross-country flight from Alamogordo to an unknown destination, and had to land at the Albuquerque International Airport due to conditions. While there, he apparently had air transport traffic tied up for a little while. Once he convinced airport officials that this was not uncommon from the perspective of a sailplane pilot, and that he had everything under control, things got back to normal. As suggested, this was an incident related to me, second-hand, by Chuck Dugan, so I won’t vouch for its authenticity.

An interesting member during the 60’s and early 70’s was Col. Henry (Hank) Godman. Col. Godman was the commander at Holloman AFB for awhile. What is most interesting about Col. Godman however, is that he was General Douglas McArthur’s personal pilot for a good part of WWII. Col. Godman published a book in 1980 about his WWII exploits with the General entitled “Supreme Commander.”

Another founding member was Larry Edgar, mentioned briefly above. On March 19 , 1952 at Bish op, CA, Larry flew a Pratt-Read glider to an altitude of 44,255 ft msl, setting a then US record for a multi-place ship . He was very active in the Sierra Wave Project in the early 50’s. An other accomplishment within the Association is that of Rex Stage who still holds several standard class altitude records for New Mexico, attained in the Sacramento Mountains Wave Window on February 5, 1989 in his DG-300 at 31,650 msl absolute, with an altitude gain of 24,650 ft. Rex has since retired from soaring, splitting his golden years with wife Marilyn, between Westcliffe , CO in the warmer months, and Casa Grande, AZ in the winter. Never-the-less, he still stays in touch with his old soaring friends.

The Association was never exceptionally well-off financially until early this century. Members often had to person ally guarantee loans to acquire new equipment and get other projects accomplished. Along the way, we managed to construct the nice hangar and clubhouse facil ity in 1989, upgrade the 2-22 and 1-16 to a Blanik L-13 , a Ka-8 and Twin Lark for a little while and a Twin-Grob Aero until an unfortunate off-field landing last year. The present sailplane fleet consists of a Blanik L- 13 , Jeans Astir and an L-23 Super B1anik which replaced the Twin Grob. So far as “unfortunate” off-field landings go, the Twin Grob was not our first and, as sure as we all know, it will probably not be our last. We have lost both a two-place Lark and another Blanik L- 13 to such incidents. We were well insured in most cases, but unfortunately were under­insured in the case of the Twin-Grob Aero as a result of not staying on top of the dollar vs euro exchange rate at the time, which is why we now have a Blanik L-23. On the brighter side, however, is the fact that we have never incurred a fatality or injury in Association equipment, so there is much more to be thankful for than just insurance dollars, or lack thereof. There is no need to blame anybody forever, financially or pilot-wise, when equipment is lost without serious injury or loss of life.

Unfortunately, we have had some fatalities in privately-owned sailplanes which we must never forget. While we have a lot of history behind us, perhaps one of the best things that ever happened to the Association was the good fortune of attracting a member by the name of Alwin (pronounced Alvin) Kroh. Alwin was a German Navy pilot, later transferred to the German Air Force, who was stationed at Holloman AFB as an instructor in a US-sponsored program designed to train German pilots at US facilities. He also obtained his US CFIG after joining WSSA and, during his three tours of duty at Holloman, was responsible for recruiting probably close to 75 new members, both German and US. He instructed 57 to glider ratings, most from scratch, but also some power transitions. How many people who have a family and full-time job do you know who would come out to the airport on weekends and after work during the week, and do this for nothing? It has to be a pure labor of love. All of this effort laid the financial ground work for the acquisition of the Twin Grob and Jeans Astir. Alwin actually negotiated the purchase of the Jeans Astir while on a temporary assignment back to Germany, also the purchase of the L-23 Super Blanik after loss of the Twin Grob. Both ships were imported and re-registered in the US. Alwin’s wife, Doris, who was also a licensed gilder pilot, assisted administratively by helping with member billings. Tn addition to active WSSA involvement, Alwin also did a few things for himself, one of which was a 1,000 kilometer flight in his Nimbus, which he fondly refers to as his “Yo-Yo 1,000k,” as it did not consist of one out-leg returnleg or a triangle, but rather multiple out and back turn-points. He also managed to sneak in a few flights with his two young children, Kisha and Jon. It was not unusual to find Jon asleep in the back seat of the Twin Grob upon landing.

During WSSA’s fifty year history we have managed to peacefully coexist with other general and commercial aviation traffic on the same uncontrolled airpo rt, not to mention the extensive military traffic flying out of Holloman AFB. The airport has a 150′ wide, 7,200’ long runway capable of handling the weight of a 727. In addition to us, operations include firefighting slurry bombers, air transport service, medical evacuation, UPS and FedEx, intra nsit military, and on weekends when Holloman’s tower and runways are normally closed, a very active Holloman Aero Club. Most of this cooprative success probably stems from the area being very aviation-minded since the founding of Holloman, as well as our Association being a primary airport user in earlier years. There was not that much pattern traffic in the 60’s through the early 90’s, so our presence went pretty much unnoticed, and good radio communicat ions was more pilot option than necessity. As traffic volume increased, we were the first to observe its impact and the resulting need to implement good uncontrolled airport communications. All users maintain good communications with each other off the field, on the field and while in the air. We also have convinced the City of Alamogordo (probably one of the more difficult communicative tasks -politics such as it is) to maintain an auxil ary dirt runway that parallels the main runway and taxiway, so that sailplanes can use it to land on when the use of the main runway might hinder the immediate landing or take-off of powered traffic. Some of the traf fic we share the field with can burn a lot of fuel on a go-round, or waiting at the departure-end of the runway for rews to clear a sailpl ane. We are well aware that glider clubs have been asked to leave airports even smaller than ours, so we have gone out of our way to insure our acceptance among other airport users.

Fifty Years! Starting with 8 members, growing to as many as 35 a time or two, declining to as few as lO a time or two, and presently sitting at 24 plus a couple of snow-birds that show up for a month or two in the winter. A decent balance sheet with everything paid for. Will we be around for an other fifty? Let’s hope so. We still have a highly mobile military population in our particular case. The presence of the German Air Force at Holloman is still helping us tremendously. As with Alwin Kroh, most of the Germans are very hard working members who positively contribute to an all-volunteer operation. Tt is uncertain as to how long we can depend upon their continue d support, however. The con tract between Germany and the US for the use of Holloman facilities will be up for renegotiation before too long. In my particular case, I joined WSSA in 1976 as it reactivated from its period of dormancy. Like all active members, my livelihood is not dependent upon WSSA . My 32 -year involvement has been for the pure love of something I always wanted to do, but was never destined to make a living at. A lot of soaring clubs and commercial operations have bellied-up. WSSA has come close a time or two, but has somehow al ways managed to survive. In retrospect, all you have to do to see why is to re-read the interesting backgrounds of the people and events that made this Association happen and get to where it ‘s at today. I obviously won’t be writing the historical accounts of our next fifty years when we celebrate our centennial, but lets hope somebody will. All soaring organizations, both commercial and non-profit, should keep good written records so that it will be an easy task to pass your history on to future generations