Philadelphia Glider Council: The Early Years

By Lew Hull, Founding Member PGC

The year was 1941 and the world was about to change. The Great Depression was behind us by a few years and life was good. But Europe was in considerable turmoil with Germany flexing its military muscles. For some of those not yet involved in the coming global conflict the intrigue of motorless flight was drawing them to action.

 The Soaring Society of America held the 12th National Soaring Contest in Elmira, NY. John Robinson won the 1941 title with a cross country flight of 170 miles, while soaring to 14,250 feet altitude in his Zanomia.

Among those in attendance were Capt. Ralph Barnaby, Lewin Barringer, Joe Grintz, and a few other Philadelphia soaring enthusiasts. A few weeks after the 1941 contest, a couple of us met with Ralph Barnaby one evening in our Philadelphia boarding house. The idea came together and Philadelphia Glider Council was hatched.

 Wally Setz served as our first president, and we rented a 600 square foot “shop” in Germantown – a northern section of Philadelphia. General Abby Wolf – a lawyer with a substantial aviation background (and future!) guided us in adding “Corporation” to our name. The total cost for the incorporation was $3.00.

On December 7, 1941, our country entered World War II with the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor. Just before the war engulfed the entire country the Philadelphia Glider Corp. acquired a primary glider for $50 – The Swoose – which was of somewhat dubious lineage. Since two-place gliders were yet to be developed, all training was accomplished in a single seat aircraft. For all of us in those days our first flight was a solo!

Launching was by towing behind a car with a rope. Low speed ground tows were used to teach “balancing” the aircraft by aileron, rudder and

elevator. With this skill mastered, the student was towed a few feet above the ground, and then progressed to higher and higher tows. In the early years of PGC, scores of students were trained with no injuries and only minor damage to our aircraft. During our first few years, we added a couple of additional gliders to our fleet. Certainly the most outstanding was a Franklin PS-2.

As is the case with most glider schools, a field for launching soon became a critical need. PGC tried a number of locations during the first couple of years. We were initially welcomed at airports until it became evident that we used long towropes, drove our $15 tow car down the runway – across the runway – around the runway, and landed randomly from any compass heading.

Several farm fields proved troublesome, but eventually we did find one very patient farm family that provided a highly satisfactory operating base near Pottstown, PA. We named it Pine Glider Field and got official approval for the airfield from the Civil Aeronautics Administration. Some of our members were accepted as Security Officers with appropriate documents, including fingerprints. However, several of

our female pilots were turned down for this title, and we have an official rejection letter from the CCA stating “We do not accept females as Security Officers”. We faced government sponsored chauvinism.

Several successful and exciting training trips were made to Elmira, NY and Wurtsboro, NY to fly from established glider fields. On some mornings, we were poised at the end of the runway as the sun came up.

For the duration of the war, all private flying activities had been suspended within 100 miles of the New Jersey coast because there had been several cases of German submarines dropping off spies and saboteurs who were then whisked inland by small airplanes landing on the beaches. The Bucks County Airport was one of the fields shut down by this restriction.

 After a concentrated search for a field we could call our own, in 1944 we purchased what had been the Bucks County Airport in Hilltown, PA. The price was $10,000 for 115 acres. When we acquired the airport, it was last being used as a hay field. We cleaned the hay out of the old hangar, replanted the field with grass and settled in.

Acquisition of an airport of our own was, in retrospect,

PGC’s most important step. The Hilltown facility has served

us well over the years, and has become a gem in the soaring world.

About the author: Lew Hull became one of the founders of PGC, while in college, in 1941. At the time of this writing Lew has been a member for 70 years, and through the 1990’s he routinely set the annual flight endurance record with many flights of over 7-hours.