THE FIRST HALF CENTURY
Down on the Hampshire coast, at Lee on Solent, one finds the home of the Portmouth Naval Gliding Club (PNGC), who celebrated their 50th anniversary on the 31st May 1999. The airfield, upon which it operates, borders the Solent opposite the Isle of Wight and has a slipway into the sea. It was established in 1917 as a naval seaplane training school and came under RAF control the following year when the Royal Naval Air Service and Royal Flying Corps merged to form the RAF. In 1939 the creation of the Fleet Air Arm ended a period of wrangling as to who should control naval aviation and the airfield became a Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS), HMS Daedalus. Since then, its wartime operational flying gave way to a developing role as a centre of air engineering training, before being finally decommisioned in March 1996 as a victim of national economies in defence spending.
The PNGC operates in a long-established centre of Royal Navy activity: The Royal Dockyard in Portsmouth, Fleetlands RN Aircraft Repair Yard in Gosport and many other Fleet training and maintenance establishments are based in the area. Portsmouth itself is a National Maritime Heritage City and is in fact on an island (Portsea Island), being connected to the mainland by road, rail and foot bridges. Just to the North-East is a 430ft ridge known as Portsdown Hill, running East-West for about 5 miles. The whole area is ringed by old defensive forts originally built to protect it from attack by Napoleonic forces.
Gliding actually started in the area as a civilian sport. By the early 1930s the Portsmouth Aero Club (Gliding Section) was already in action on what became Portsmouth Airport in 1932 and also from Portsdown Hill. The airport closed in 1973 when modern aircraft became too heavy for its soft turf, whilst Portsdown Hill grew lots of houses and transmission lines.
The second world war saw sports gliding on the back burner, however experienced pilots and designers still did valuable work. For example a special glider squadron was formed during the days when invasion was expected, to test the effectiveness of our coastal radar against glider-borne troops. Gliders were towed out to sea and released for the long glide back to England. Some of these pilots were forced to soar in order to scale the cliffs! Later work on the UK manufacture of troop carrying gliders and their extended airtows into France and elsewhere are well documented.
At the end of the war in 1945, it was considered necessary by the Admiralty that every effort had to be made to occupy the sailors' time and maintain morale in the period before they could be demobilized. Among other pursuits deemed worthy of encouragement (dances, amateur dramatics etc.), gliding was specifically mentioned. This opportunity was eagerly seized upon by naval gliding enthusiasts, for whom the attraction of Service sponsorship just could not be allowed to pass.
Enter Lt John Sproule who, in the 1930s, worked alongside Fred Slingsby and designed the Kirby Cadet (1936) and Tutor (1937)-a two seater version of which can still be seen as the T31. A leading glider pilot, he established a world duration record of over 22 hours at Dunstable in 1938, flying in a two seater Falcon 3. He was one of those formed into a wartime Admiralty Glider Research Unit, working on their possible use for troop and equipment deloyment. Later on he flew gliders behind aircraft carriers to investigate the turbulence they cause.
John Sproule acquired (he probably invented it!) the task of touring naval air stations with a Tiger Moth plus tow hook, a Kranich, MU13d and an Olympia (Meise). Such gliders were brought back from Germany for study and to raise interest in the sport. During each visit they were demonstrated, then used to train naval personnel within a period of a week. Subsequent to this tour, a meeting was convened in HMS Daedalus with representatives from those air stations which Sproule had visited. The result was the formation of a Royal Naval Gliding and Soaring Association (RNGSA) in March 1947.
The objectives of the RNGSA were "to provide recreational facilities for officers and ratings and to advance the state of airmanship and close understanding between Naval aircrews and their supporting personnel" (What a sensible balance between pleasure and military need!). It was constituted as the governing body of a confederation of associated clubs. Membership was for only Fleet Air Arm personnel and there was an enthusiastic initial reponse.
Photograph Curtesy of Sandy Sproule, shows John Sproule by the Olympia after an arobatic display at RNAS Ford (now an open prison) date around 1951.
Nine air stations formed clubs and about the same number had gliding activity planned. The clubs were known by their parent station title, eg (HMS) Gannet GSC was at Eglinton in Northern Ireland. Some of these lasted no time at all and the others suffered at various times from a lack of organizers, members or instructors. Clubs could become inactive for long periods when key personnel were drafted elsewhere.
As far as gliders were concerned, John Sproule had managed to organize quite a selection, plus the drawings for the Grunau Baby.
In addition to a Tutor built at Worthy Down, four gliders were borrowed from the Admiralty Directorate of Aeronautical and Engineering Research (DAER)-a Kranich I and II, Grunau Baby and Olympia-all with trailers. In addition, three SG38s (Primarys) and three Grunau Babys were obtained from the RAF in Germany as war reparations.
An ingenious plan was then hatched by the RNGSA treasurer, Lt Wiseman, whereby new naval clubs would be provided with gliders upon downpayment of £50 plus £1 per month of loan. This money would buy more gliders and so on...
Well the plan worked, despite one hitch: Sproule had set up a Grunau Baby IIb manufacturing facility in Fleetlands Repair Yard. After only three Grunaus had been made, the Slingsby Company complained to the Society of British Aircraft Manufacturers about this competition, so production ceased! However, by March 1948, enough loan/hire payments had been received by the RNGSA to enable six Primarys to be ordered from Elliotts of Newbury for £175 apiece. Launching equipment was local auto-tow vehicles or ex-RAF 'Wild' winches, either Air Ministry as used by the Air Training Corps (ATC) or on loan from the DAER. Incidentally, at this time, approval for the issue of petrol coupons had to be sought from the Ministry of Fuel and Power!
Back to the plot... One of these RNGSA sponsored clubs, the Gosport GSC, was formed with membership comprising Royal Navy personnel from HMS Collingwood (the electronics training establishment near Fareham) and HMS Siskin (an active RNAS in Gosport). Auto towing of its solo trainer SG38 and intermediate Grunau Baby was occasionally supplemented by winch launches courtesy of the resident ATC or a barrage balloon winch on loan from the DAER. Very occasionally an airotow was available, whenever the station Tiger Moth was available. The Club was soon retitled the Siskin Naval GSC and, at a time when the national average wage was about £2.50, the princely sum of £4 would cover all subscriptions and flying fees to B certificate level! Sailors would pay 1/- (5p) for a winch launch and 10 minutes soaring. The same sum would have bought a pint of beer and 5 fags then. However no-one would be sent solo without 10 minutes in the station's Link Trainer (an early flight simulator). The technical adviser to the club was John Sproule and winches, towing vehicles and other ancillary equipment could be borrowed from the Navy or the DAER-those were the days!
Primary SG38 being Towed by a Jeep Modified by John Sproule
Air to Air shot of the Meise (Olympia) on the left and MU13 on right taken over RNAS Gosport (HMS Siskin). This area is now mainly housing estate but some of the hangars are still standing and part of HMS Sultan. Date - 1946
In March 1949, prompted perhaps by reducing numbers as demobilization proceded, the local idea was born to increase Club membership by welcoming the other armed Services. The opportunity to seek Admiralty recognition of gliding as a sport was also attempted, offering a gliding display as bait (it didn't work). This was the first mention of a PNGC. Enter Lt Commander Tony Goodhart, who with his brother Nick, were later to become well known in the sport: Nick still holds the single seat UK goal/distance record from Lasham to Portmoak (579.36k/m) and British National absolute altitude record (11,600m). The brothers came 1st and 2nd in the 1951 Nationals team championships (they had 4 Wrens as crew too!) and were the first two British pilots to achieve 3 diamonds. Then stationed in Portsmouth, Tony quickly proposed to the RNGSA (whose secretary was John Sproule-what luck!), that this local idea be broadened so that naval clubs could be formed "to satisfy the spirit of airworthiness amongst all naval ranks". The approval of senior local Navy staff was specifically sought for a PNGC. Civilian membership was not considered.
The Siskin Naval GSC thus became the Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club, with a much wider membership catchment area and source of potential funds. The fleet was then a Primary, Cadet and Grunau. It is fair to say that Tony Goodhart founded the PNGC, and it was he also who made the first Club flight on 1st May 1949; so that is the declared formation date. He was the chairman/secretary, Lt Murray Hayes the CFI, John Sproule the technical adviser and a long retired former RFC pilot,Mr Robert (Pop) Pininger became the maintenance engineer. Lt Commander Humphrey Dimock applied to join straight away. Stories abound involving Humphrey, who became an international competitor- with style. During one competition in Switzerland he found his retrieve car keys in his pocket after takeoff. Only he could have thought of attaching his hankerchief to them and, with due warning, dropping them from 3,000ft over the launch point....they are still out there somewhere!
As another aside, Pop Pinninger deserves a mention. He learned to fly in a warp-wing Bleriot in 1909 and in 1914 joined the RFC, taking his aircraft with him. In 1915 he crashed in no-man's land and spent the next four days nursing smashed ribs in the wreckage. Between the wars he helped train the Chilian Air Force during which time, after uncrating a DH9, he took off only to suffer glue failure in the starboard mainplane. Luckily he finished up in a 150ft tree! It was John Sproule who interested him in gliding and it was Pop who, in Fleetlands, made the few Grunau Babys that were allowed. At least one is still flying today- in the hands of Murray Hayes in Lincolnshire. It doesn't end there...Pop later became a 'wing walker' in Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus and, in his Will, he asked that his ashes be scattered over the Solent. Much later they were duly loaded into a tube and taken aloft (legally) in a T21. He must have chuckled from somewhere when, inevitably, most of them exited the wrong end and re-occupied the cockpit area!
During the first summer season after its formation, the Club enjoyed the thrills of 168 ground slides at 6d(2.5p), 224 hops at 1/-(5p) and 277 circuits at 1/6d(7.5p). Seven A and five B certificates were gained and membership was between 50 and 60 at £1.10s(£1.50) per year. The following year a Slingsby T21b was added to the fleet, when it became out of fashion to teach gliding in single seaters (surely not the only reason!).
In 1950, after a 3 year struggle, the Admiralty legitimized Naval gliding by recognizing it as an 'attributable sport'. Amongst other things, this meant that Servicemen did not have to sign an indemnity form (blood chit) guaranteeing their Lordships against any claim for death or injury. That same year, the Navy decided to enter a team in the Nationals and the Goodharts were chosen to fly a Mu13a. They came 2nd. Summer camps were popular, the Bristol, Midland and Southdown clubs being just a selection who welcomed the Navy. Since those heady days the Club has steadily matured whilst, of the others, only the Heron Club at HMS Heron, Yeovilton, Somerset and the Seahawk Club at RNAS Culdrose, Cornwall still survive. In 1956, HMS Siskin was run down under 'Plan Goodwood' and the PNGC moved into its own hangar and clubhouse in HMS Daedalus at Lee on Solent. The 'RN Glider Unit' was transferred to Yeovilton- and into oblivion probably. Not long after this, membership was opened to apprentices and civil servants employed by the Admiralty and later on to other civilians.
The '60s saw the introduction of regular airtowing for Service personnel, thanks to a Tiger Moth from the resident 781 Naval Squadron, although it was not always easy to dig their pilots out at weekends! A syndicate was therefore formed and a private Tiger Moth purchased for hire as a tug. The glider fleet was progressively modernised, a Skylark 2 acquired and the RNGSA Air Member (Peter Davies) led a team to create a common naval gliding training syllabus. Service charities assisted with loans or grants and the Royal Navy remained generous in its assistance with maintenance up to the end of the decade. Local affiliations were made and Air Scouts, Air Rangers and Girls Venture Corps encouraged. The beach came into its own on at least a couple of occasions as an involuntary landing strip (remember-4 tides per day in the Solent!)
Up to the early 70s, the Navy required the Club to care for its gliders in accordance with A700 accounting practice- like a Service aircraft really. One example of this was their desire to remove each glider seat harness for inspection every four weeks. So when the Navy could no longer assist with such maintenance, BGA procedures were adopted. Humphrey Dimock bought a Motor Falke for Club use but it did not pay, at 8d(3p) per minute, and had to go. To the fleet, inter alia, was added a FOKA 5 and a Skylark 4, bought via a Club debenture scheme. In 1974 its first Easter ab initio gliding course was held.
One day in 1977, members watched with increasing interest as the Club Pirat executed a somewhat fast approach to land, only to oscillate just above the ground for the entire length of the runway plus a bit, finally to touch down and collide with the (stout) perimeter fence. The unhurt pilot forestalled only some of the members' subsequent advice by admitting that he had mistaken trim for airbrake! The decade closed with the dominance of airtowing over winching. Three Austers and a Chipmunk competed with one winch, which had achieved senility despite much tender work by Ken Adams.
By the early 80s, naval flying had virtually ceased from HMS Daedalus, leaving only the Wessex helicopter Search and Rescue (SAR) team and PNGC to enjoy the turf. The Club now ran two ab initio courses each year, later rising to three and catering for Dartmouth naval cadets, Fleet Air Arm Officers Association youngsters, Club members and anyone else- in that order. Five dual seaters, 35 students, 3 tugs and 10 instructors could be managed.
An interesting day occured early in April 1982, when the Club shared the airfield with a mass of Harriers, helicopters and assorted RN aircraft which were joining ships or supplying the fleet before and after its departure from Portsmouth to the Falkland Islands. Everyone was just too busy to order a halt to gliding- Club radio communications came of age that day!
Having by now disposed of its only winch, airtowing kept things going until the purchase of two double decker buses for £500 each. One became a restaurant/briefing room, the other turned into a single winch- and much credit goes to Lt Ken Stephenson for all this...Some people keep rabbits- Ken builds winches! In 1989 it was realised that not all the explosive charges, placed under the runways during the war to render them unserviceable to the Germans (should things get that bad!), had been removed. It took only a few weeks to do this, but it left a fair number of filled-in holes and the airfield just hasn't seemed as level ever since. The Hampshire Constabulary based their Optica surveillance aircraft on the airfield at about this time.
Finally into the 90s, during the first half of which the Club continued to enjoy stability and progress, via the addition of two ASK 13s and a Puchatz. Members still found it difficult to bring guests through the naval security system (two clear working days notice!) and the proportion of civilian members had to be limited. The big cloud on the horizon (or should it be an area of big sink?) became the need for post Cold War defence cuts. HMS Daelalus, having an airfield and no aircraft tended to stick out a bit in this respect, but had been spared so far. It was bound to happen, however, and in 1996 the Royal Navy marched smartly out through the gate for the last time. Training functions were transferred elsewhere and the whole site passed to the the Defence Lands Agent to sell.
Since that day and pro-tem, most of the airfield itself has been leased on an annual basis to the Hampshire Constabulary, which now flies an Islander. The SAR function is privatized, with two helicopters on site and a private light aircraft group holds an annual sub-lease, as does the gliding club. The PNGC is by far the largest of the naval gliding clubs, in fact it is one of the biggest in the UK with approaching 10,000 launches this year, 6 dual seaters, 6 singles (including a Discus), 5 winches, 3 tugs and 325 members. Maintenance is a burden and access to the airfield is now via electronic wizardry. The wind still blows and everyone is used to flying over the sea.
Looking ahead, the Club's future appears tied to Lee on Solent. If, on selling the camp and airfield, aviation ceases and a green field site is not possible, Club assets will revert to the RNGSA. If general aviation is encouraged, then there may be no room for winching. Might the Police buy all or part of the airfield...? The Club's best hope is for indecision to continue. Yes- PNGC will keep gliding whilst 'planning for the unexpected'.
Since Derek wrote his article the ownership of the airfield changed in early 2006. Most of the area within the perimiter track has been purchased by the Maritime Coastguard Agency and PNGC, after a hard struggle was granted use of the airfield in our own right, no longer a sub-tenant of the Police. The Hampshire Police Air Support Unit still look after the day to day running of the airfield and we have been joined by several aeronautical businesses and additional power flying clubs including a swarm of Micolites.
The area outside of the perimiter track has been purchased by SEEDA and the intention os to dvelope the site to include some extra housing and also to improve the facilities to attract local businesses, especially Aviation based concerns.
The following was written by Derek Ballard and originally published in the April/May 1999 edition of the BGA's Magazine 'SAILPLANE & GLIDING'.
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