From around 1958 or so (when I was 12) most of our family weekends were spent Gliding. My Father, Gordon Kinghorn, and some friends founded the Dumfries and District Gliding club. Although he flew during the war as air navigator, he often shared the flying and with his pilot, so he knew how to fly. The other founders included Ian Steel, Bob Robinson and Gordon Pearson.
Operations started on a moorland site near Thornhill, and I remember helping with the removal and re-erection of our hangar (which came from Longtown near Carlisle). To accomodate the aircraft without de –rigging, the original sectional building was widened with trusses, the resulting gap at the ridge being boarded in. The resulting structure was very strong – and it needed to be on such an exposed spot.
Our first aircraft was a Slingsby Tutor – an open cockpit single seat trainer rescued from a farmers barn. The aircraft was duly cleaned, and refurbished. I as the only one small enough got the job of crawling down inside the fuselage to clean out the chicken feathers. Launching was by winch – a converted Chevrolet truck with an extra rear axle mounted above the rear chassis to drive the drums. The cable was led through a steel tube out over the front mudguards making it tricky to get in and out. God help the driver if it caught fire!
The major problem at Thornhill was the cable retrieve. The site was simply a stretch of boggy moorland, so the cable retrieve was always an adventure. There were several efforts at building a retrieve winch, one based on an aincient motorbike (square tank), another utilising the cab, chassis and powertrain of a model T Ford. However mostly the cable was retrieved by tractor. We had 2 – petrol/ parrafin beasts with the bucket seat mounted on a huge spring. Hand start of course. My first driving lessons were on these tractors-- Gordon Pearson was my tutor. Even these sometimes got bogged down. When all else failed, my dad’s brand new Land Rover was pressed into service with much crossing of fingers and sucking of teeth.
Not long afterwards we bought our second aircraft -- a brand new bright red 2-seat trainer-a SlingsbyT31 – identical to the Tutor, but with a second instructors cockpit squeezed under the wing. So my mother (Maisie) and I started to learn how to fly gliders. The T31 had one huge advantage over the Tutor – spoilers! which made landing back a lot easier.
The Thornhill site boasted a ridge – a steep hillside escarpment nearby which faced into the prevailing south-westerly wind, so if you flew along the top of this ridge, in the rising up current of air, you could stay airborne all day! In practice half an hour or so was well sufficient to freeze you into returning to land, and thaw out on the clubhouse stove. I remember someone doing his 5 hours in the Tutor, one cold day. He didnt waste much time after the pré-arranged signal that he had completed his task-- his flight time was 5 hours 4 mins.
Dad, together with Gordon Pearson, Ian Steel, and Campbell Boyce, bought a Skylark high performance sailplane, and started to explore the heavens. Mum and I continued to learn – in my case because I was too young to fly solo. I weighed all of 8 stone at the time and needed to fly with a sandbag ballast. (not a problem that I would have today!)
One day disaster struck – and we lost the Tutor. An inexperienced pilot undershot his landing and disappeared below the brow of the slope leading up to our landing point. I set off running down the slope to help retrieve the aircraft. I expected to see the raised wing appear over the curve of the ground but instead found the aircraft totally wrecked. He had stalled in on top of a huge boulder. Both wings shattered and broken off forward, and the front fuselage and cockpit área matchwood. My dad arrived and immediately ordered me back to the clubhouse to summon an ambulance. The pilot broke a leg, and survived to fly again, but our pretty little silver and black Tutor was no more! The aircraft was totally destroyed. I was able to rescue part of one of the fragmented wings. This grim trophy followed me on all my travels, and the tip of this wing is beside me here as I write. The lesson to remember – keep your speed up on the approach at all costs!
Not long after this the club moved to operate from the disused wartime airfield at Heathhall, Dumfries, Our clubhouse was in the old pilot’s mess – luxury compared to the Thornhill ‘shed’. There was no soaring ridge nearby so extension of the five-minute circuit could only be made by finding, and staying inside, a thermal –a rising bubble of warm air which could raise you literally into the clouds. I duly went solo on my sixteenth birthday – and thus for a while became the youngest qualified glider pilot in the UK . The club had bought a replacement single seater (a Slingsby Prefect) from the insurance money from the wreck of the tutor, and it was in this aircraft that I later gained my ‘C’ certificate – (in a thermal which formed off the hot hangar roofs).
The frequency of my flying was governed by the depth of my pocket. A winch launch was four bob- a princely sum for whom depended on his pocket-money. I worked tattie-picking and as a builders labourer to eke out the finances. The perk of the day was the fly-in – the last launch of the day where the objective was to land as close as possible to the hangar. – and it was FREE. Awarded by the duty instructor to whom helped most that day (you can bet that I did my best to qualify for this!). If you got it right, you could fly in low over the fire-resevoirs, touch down on the apron, and roll gently into the hangar.
Once I nearly bent the T31. Flying (solo) from the rubber works end of the E-W runway I didnt notice a wind shift and ended up well downwind and to the north of the runway. A normal square crosswind leg was impossible. Not wanting to repeat the Tutor incident I stuck the nose down and came whistling in across the field alongside the runway, with enough speed still to lift her over the fence and touch down on the runway. I think it was Ian who told me off for getting into the situation, but congratulated me for getting out of it!.
A great part of the success of the club lay in the informality and team spirit of all. We had surgeons, doctors, lawyers, housewives, pit-workers, farm labourers, (and at least one schoolboy) in the club and everyone pitched in together to dirty their hands with whatever task needed doing to get airborne. No money available for paid help! Ian looked after the aircraft, but we all helped with the CofA preparations, oiling controls, painting etc. Jack Reid looked after the ground equipment – a forthright character who didnt always make himself popular, but performed miracles with our collection of ex-scrapyard winches, tow-cars etc. to keep us going. We all helped in this, but especially me- I was in my element with grease and oil up to the eyeballs. Another character of note was ‘The Major’. A somewhat crusty and eccentric retired army officer, who lived alone nearby and was quite willing to lend his brand new Merc to anyone if needed to tow aircraft, or retrieve the cable. He had a K7 and but no-one had the courage to fly with him.
Launching was still by winch – ex ww2 barrage balloon winches powered by Ford V8 petrol engines. (six volt, hand start). To hand start a 4 litre petrol engine requires courage. 2 slow turns to draw in the mixture through the carb, then a quick upwards jerk against compression, (ALL fingers on the same side of the handle or if it kicks back you break your thumb) and with luck away she goes. When the engine blew up (which was not uncommon) it was a couple of hours work to change the engine and get back flying. We all became mechanics. Even my mum -- mending broken cables, driving the winches, retrieve vehicles etc. One winch was mounted on the back of a Bedford truck – with no clutch or brakes –tricky, but not impossible to drive.
The club boasted 2 aincient Humber cars used for cable retrieve and also sometimes for the launch. My brother Alastair and I were driving these before we could see over the steering wheel. Near the south end of the main runway was a large ‘dip’ in the asphalt where the subsoil had given way. This filled with rain, and if this then froze over, made a wonderful skid-pan. Everyone including me made use of this to refine our skills re driving on ice. Skills which still come in handy here on our dirt roads.
Also the ww2 airfield was almost intact – Alastair and I spent many happy hours exploring the bomb-shelters, control tower (still with aircraft recognition charts on the walls) and the dump – full of wrecked wartime aircraft. Jack Reid told the story of a number of brand new Spitfires, surplus to requirements at the end of the war. The order was to destroy them. They were lined up on the grass to the west of the north end of the main runway, they dug holes under the front of each aircraft, and cut off and buried the engines. The airframes were bulldozed together and torched. So if anyone wants a somewhat rusty but zero kilometer Merlin, take a walk around there with a metal detector! Another activity that had been carried out there was gun-alignment, and the huge raised gunnery targets, full of sand were also full of spent tracer bullets – still half full of magnesium—very spectacular (and highly dangerous).
Then as now I developed the habit of doing the jobs no one else wanted. One of these was duty winch driver. No radio, telephone, or cellular in those days. Stationed alone a mile or so from the rest of the crowd, the first indication of ‘work’ was when one of the aircraft was wheeled out to the launch point, with wings held level. A signalman waved one bat to indicate ‘take up slack, whereupon one would engage gear and slowly wind in the cable, slipping the clutch as necessary. Two bats meant ‘all out’ and it was full throttle to yank the aircraft off the ground, and commence the climb, the big V8 bellowing away behind me. Throttle back gradually to keep him on the climb at the right airspeed (too fast and he wags his tail, too slow and he rocks his wings). When almost overhead, throttle right back until he lets go the cable, and then flat out to reel in, the cable end being supported by a small drogue parachute). Fun and games when the cable broke (which was often). All stop and pray. The winch had a wire netting protection cage, but once the broken cable end penetrated this and almost got me! Great fun at fifteen or so.
Later I helped found the Edinburgh University Gliding club. Unlike with D&DGC money was not short so we bought a 2-seater Eagle and a single seater ‘Ollie’ (Olympia). EUGC operated for a while together with D&DGC at Heathhall – the Eagle was a heavy aircraft, both on the ground and in the air. It frequently broke the winch cable, so it was not very popular with the D&DGC gang – resolved when EUGC bought their own Wild Winch. On my first flight in the Ollie, my flying jacket cuff caught on the airbrake lever when I released the winch cable. Jeez I thought I was dead when the airbrakes opened with a bang!.
About 1967 or so EUGC moved to a site nearer home, so I became a rare visitor to the club at Heathhall. In 1968 I moved to Essex to work for Ford Motor Company, so thus ended my involvement with the Dumfries club. I continued to fly for a while at North Weald but it wasn’t the same, a bit stuffy and formal compared with the irreverence and camaradarie of Dumfries .
So there you have it – everything I can remember about the early days of D&DCG. Please note all of this is from memory –of half a century or so ago—strict accuracy is not guaranteed!. Note the keyword ‘our’ through all of this – no ‘their’ or ‘the clubs-‘´I hope that this ‘our’ mentality hás survived the intervening 50 years.