After Germany and its allies lost WWI, motor flying became strictly prohibited under the Treaty of Versailles. Creativity often springs from constraints, and so, paradoxically, the ban imposed by the Allies encouraged precisely what they had actually wanted to thwart: the growth of the German aviation industry. As all military flying was prohibited under the Treaty, the innovation in German aviation throughout the 1920’s took an unlikely path via unmotorised gliders built by student associations at universities.

Before and during WWI, Germany had been one of the leading countries in terms of the theoretical development of aviation and the actual construction of novel aircraft. The famous aerodynamicist Ludwig Prandtl and his colleagues developed the theory of the boundary layer which later led to wing theory. The close relationship of research laboratories and industrial magnates, like Fokker and Junkers, meant that many of the novel ideas of the day were tested on actual aircraft during WWI. Part of the reason why Baron von Richthofen, the Red Baron, became the most decorated fighter pilot of his day, was because his equipment was more technologically advanced than that of his opponents; a direct result of a thicker cambered wing that Prandtl had tested in his wind tunnels.

Given this heritage, it comes to no surprise that German students and professors soon found a way around the ban imposed at the Treaty of Versailles. For example, a number of enthusiastic students from the University of Aachen formed the Flugwissenschaftliche Vereinigung Aachen (FVA, Aachen Association for Aeronautical Sciences). These students loved the art and science of flying and intended to continue their passion despite the ban. Theodore von Kármán, of vortex street and Tacoma Narrows bridge fame, was a professor at the Technical University of Aachen at the time and remembers the episode as follows:

One day an FVA member approached me with a bright idea.
“Herr Professor,“ he said. “We would like your help. We wish to build a glider.”
“A glider? Why do you wish to build a glider?”
“For sport.” the student said.
I thought it over. Constructing a glider would be more than sport. It would be an interesting and useful aerodynamic project, quite in keeping with German traditions, but in view of postwar turmoil it could be politically quite risky … On the other hand, motorised flight was specifically outlawed in the Treaty of Versailles, and sport flying was not military flying. So rationalizing in this way, I told the boys to go ahead.

What von Kármán was not aware of at the time was that he was helping to lay the foundation for an important part of the German air force during WWII. The lessons learned in improving glider design would be directly applicable to military aeronautics later on.

Glider development in itself is a topic worth studying. The French sailor Le Bris constructed a functional glider in 1870, but the most famous gliders of the 19th century were all built by Otto Lilienthal. Lilienthal became the first aviator to realise the superiority of curved wings over flat surfaces for providing lift. Lilienthal conducted some rudimentary wing testing to tabulate the air pressure and lift for different wing sections; data which inspired, but was then superseded by the Wright brothers’ experiments using their own wind tunnel. In the USA, Octave Chanute is famous for his work on gliders and for many years he served as a direct mentor to the Wright brothers, who themselves built a number of successful gliders to optimise wing shapes and control mechanisms.

After the first successful motor-powered flight in 1903, interest in gliders largely subsided, but was then revived by collegiate sporting competitions organised by German universities. Oskar Ursinus, the editor of the aeronautics journal Flugsport (Sport Flying), organised an intercollegiate gliding competition in the Rhön mountains, a spot renowned for its strong upwinds. So work began behind closed doors in many university labs and sheds. Von Kármán’s school, the University of Aachen, built a 6 m (20 foot) wing-span glider called the Black Devil, which was the first cantilever monoplane glider to be built at the time. As a result of the cantilever wing construction, the design abandoned any form of wire bracing to stabilise the wing and relied purely on internal wing bracing, as had been pioneered by Junkers in 1915. In this regard, the glider was already more advanced than most of the fighters in WWI that were based on the classical bi-plane or even trip-plane design held together by wires and struts.

The Black Devil sailplane, designed by Wolfgang Klemperer

By early 1920 the Black Devil was ready to compete. At this point the students faced a new logistical challenge — how were they going to transport the glider a 150 miles south through three military zones (British, French and American), when shipping aircraft components was strictly forbidden?

As reckless students they of course operated in secret. The Black Devil was dismantled into its components, packed into a tarpaulin freight car and then driven through the night. Of this episode von Kármán recounts that,

On one occasion during the journey we almost lost the Black Devil to a contingent of Allied troops. Fortunately the engineer and student guard received advance notice of the movement, disengaged the car holding the glider, and silently transferred it to a dark sliding until the troops rode past.

Overall, the trip took six hours and the teams from Stuttgart, Göttingen and Berlin were already in attendance.

Lacking any motorised aircraft to launch the gliders, two rubber ropes were attached to the nose of the glider and then used as a catapult to launch the glider off the edge of a hill. Once in the air, it was the role of the pilot to manoeuvre the plane purely by shifting his/her body weight to balance the glider in the wind. In 1920, Aachen managed to win the competition with a flight time of 2 minutes and 20 seconds. Not a new revolution in glider design, but proving the aerodynamics of their concept plane nevertheless. A year later, an improved version of the Black Devil, the Blue Mouse, flew for 13 minutes, breaking the long-held record by Orville Wright of 9 minutes and 45 seconds. Some great videos of the early flights at the Wasserkuppe in the Rhön mountains exist to this day.

The Blue Mouse glider flying at the Wasserkuppe in the Rhön mountains.

In the following years, von Kármán and his scientific mentor and aerodynamics pioneer Ludwig Prandtl gave a series of seminars on the aerodynamics of gliding, which were attended by students and flying enthusiasts from all over the country. Among the attendees was Willy Messerschmitt, an engineering student at the time, whose fighters and bombers later formed the core of the Nazi air force during WWII. Even established industrialists, German royalty and other university professors attended the talks. As a result of this broad and democratic dissemination of knowledge and the collaborative spirit at the time, innovations began to sprout quickly. One of the main innovations was efficiently using thermal updrafts in combination with topological updrafts to extend the flying time. In 1922, a collaborative design team from the University of Hannover built the Hannover H 1 Vampyre glider, which first extended the gliding record to 3 hours and then to 6 hours in 1923. The Vampyr was one of the first heavier-than-air aircraft to use the stressed-skin “monocoque” design philosophy and is the forerunner of all modern gliders.

Aircraft Glider Vampyr

The Vampyr glider. One of the first aircraft ever to use the stresses skin”monocoque” concept.

The collegiate sporting competitions continued until the early 1930’s. The Nazis soon realised that the technical knowledge gained in these sporting competitions could be used in rebuilding the German air force. Due to the lack of a power unit and limited control surfaces, the student engineers and industrialists had been forced to design efficient lightweight structures and wings that provided the best compromise in terms of lift, drag and attitude control. Most importantly, the gliders proved the superiority of single long cantilevered wings over the limited double- and triple-wing configuration used during WWI. The internal structure of the wing allowed for much lighter construction as the size of the aircraft grew, the parasitic source of drag induced by the wires and struts was eliminated, and the lift to drag ratio was dramatically improved by the long glider wings. Tragically, some pioneers took these concept too far and lost their lives as a result. While the lift efficiency of a wing is increased as the aspect ratio (length to chord ratio) increases, so do the bending stresses at the root of the wing due to lift. As a result, there were a number of incidents where insufficiently stiffened wings literally twisted off the fuselage.

On the importance of glider developments von Kármán reflects that,

I have always thought that the Allies were shortsighted when they banned motor flying in Germany … Experiments with gliders in sport sharpened German thinking in aerodynamics, structural design, and meteorology … In structural design gliders showed how best to distribute weight in a light structure and revealed new facts about vibration. In meteorology we learned from gliders how planes could use the jet stream to increase speed; we uncovered the dangers of hidden turbulence in the air, and in general opened up the study of meteorological influences on aviation. It is interesting to note that glider flying did more to advance the science of aviation than most of the motorised flying in World War I.

We can only speculate how von Kármán must have felt after leaving Germany in the 1930’s, partly due to his Jewish heritage, and witness from afar how the machines he helped to develop wreaked havoc in Europe during WWII.


The quotes in this post are taken from von Kármán’s excellent biography The Wind and Beyond: Theodore von Karman, Pioneer in Aviation and Pathfinder in Space by Theodore von Kármán and Lee Edson.

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