Fence-Hoppers and Skid Busters

By Aimee Benoit, Curator

To soar like a hawk, or ride a wild “mountain wave” off the edge of the Rockies: for almost 90 years this dream has enticed gliding enthusiasts to the skies of southwestern Alberta.

Gliders are lightweight, motorless aircraft. Pilots launch gliders into the air, flying on rising spirals of warm air called thermals. Gliding began in western Canada in the 1920s. Handmade gliders were soon being tested in small towns such as Cardston and Taber.

Three Lethbridge students pooled their resources to build a simple primary glider in 1929. On May 11, 1930, the Lethbridge Glider Club launched the wooden craft using a shock cord stretched back like a catapult. The glider barely made it off the ground. Yet from that first attempt, the club took every chance they had to fly. They exchanged technical advice with other amateur gliders and added members to their club. They modified their aircraft and experimented with new launching techniques such as motorized winches and tow-cars.

Club members used their skills in carpentry and metalworking to add a “gull wing” trainer and a Hutter H-17 sailplane to their small fleet. Unlike primary gliders, the H-17 was designed to soar for long distances. The club achieved several notable feats with the H-17. Tom Hardy performed what is believed to be Canada’s first loop-the-loop in a glider. Evelyn Fletcher and Art Larson made long-distance flights that eventually earned them international gliding certificates. Evelyn’s 51-minute flight reached an altitude of 3858 feet (1176 meters)—a Canadian gliding record that stood for ten years.

Gliding has continued to attract a small but passionate following in southwestern Alberta, which is now recognized as a world-class destination for the sport. To learn more, visit the Galt Museum & Archives. The exhibit, Soar! A History of Gliding in Southwestern Alberta opens February 17, 2018.

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