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Gliding in South Australia has grown much from its humble beginnings in the late 1920s. Modern gliders are built from fibreglass and other composite materials, have a glide ratio above 60:1, and are capable of cross country flights in excess of 1000kms. But it was not always so…

The First Club

In the early 1920’s gliding was the realm of a few individuals who would build themselves a glider and then go and fly it, with varying degrees of success. In June 1929, National Geographic magazine published an article detailing gliding activities in Germany. This stimulated the interest of many potential aviators. Interested members of the Adelaide University Engineers Society met in their common room and decided to form a gliding club and build themselves a primary glider. They called themselves the Adelaide University Engineers Gliding Club.

There is some debate as to whether the engineers were the first gliding club in S.A., as the Gliding Club of South Australia was formed at about the same time, but because the G.C.S.A. members tended to be more financial than the students, they ordered their glider from Percy Pratt in Victoria and were operational a few months before the engineers.

Permission was obtained from the Physics and Engineering departments to use the Physics workshops, behind what is currently the university physics buildings, over the 1929-1930 long vacation. Supplies of spruce and other necessary materials were obtained and the work commenced. The design selected was that of a Zogling primary trainer. Plans were discovered in an American magazine, suspected to be Science and Invention. Much support was given to the engineers both from members of engineering academic staff and from the Royal Aero Club’s chief aeronautical engineer.

Engineering students building their glider in the physics workshops in the summer of 1929-1930.

Professor Chapman of the Engineering Department would often encourage the engineers to do stress calculations for the glider as an exercise. Ribs were made, turnbuckles were machined, fabric and dope were applied and bracing wires were fitted. The glider was painted blue with the Engineers Society crest on the pylon above the wing. Total cost was £17 compared to the £100 paid by the Gliding Club of South Australia.

The partially-built glider in what is now the Kerr Grant Lecture Theatre.

In March 1930 it was finished. The first club-built glider in South Australia was ready to fly. A camp was organised for the first term break in May at Tapleys Hill and the Royal Aero Club’s chief flying instructor, Mr. George Kenneth Rice-Oxley, who had taken quite an interest in the engineers by now, test flew the glider. He pronounced it airworthy and the task of learning to fly began.

After the flight of the glider at Tapley’s Hill, men gather around it for a conference (

Rice-Oxley was so impressed with the performance and handling of the glider that Frank Roberts, an aeronautical engineer at Parafield, built a similar glider from the same plans, with some streamlining added, that could be used in record breaking attempts.

The glider and its unidentified pilot coming in over the treetops for a smooth landing.

Bungee launches were employed. Life was not always perfect. The glider was damaged at regular intervals but such was the design that it could generally be fixed in a few days.

Thomas Leech on a Primary glider, Adelaide University Engineers Gliding Club, Tapleys Hill, South Australia, 1930 (

In August 1930, the engineers held another camp at Sellicks Hill and invited the then Governor of South Australia, Sir Alexander Hore-Ruthven. To their delight he attended; he was served afternoon tea in a tent and a demonstration flight took place. At the last moment Rice-Oxley was unable to attend and give the demonstration flight, so Malcolm Joyner, a dentist, who had flown to the field in a Tiger Moth, was selected as having the most flying experience, although he had never flown a glider. He was launched and glided in for a safe landing but was heard to remark afterwards that he had never been so scared in all his life.

Later in the camp, Rice-Oxley broke a British Commonwealth duration record in his specially built primary by staying airborne for 62 minutes. He could have stayed up longer but after about an hour the engineers launched their glider to keep Rice-Oxley company; however, they crashed it so Rice-Oxley landed to make sure everyone was alright.

The engineers and their glider continued flying at such places as Sellicks, Tapleys Hill and Normanville. In this era all soaring flight was carried out in ridge lift which would have been regularly available at each of these sites. Unfortunately in 1932 one of the members, Bob Simpson, wrote off the glider, breaking his nose and a leg in the process. The bits of the glider were stored in Bob Simpson’s shed for a while before being sold to the Gliding Club of South Australia for use as spares.

The Second Club

A second club was formed in 1945 and operated for about 3 years, using a car to tow the glider from the beach at Sellicks. It was also named the Adelaide University Engineers Gliding Club although none of the original members were involved. Their primary glider was given to them by a farmer whose property they used, as the farmer was once a member of the McLaren Vale Gliding Club, which folded a few years before the engineers arrived. Not much is known about this club. There are stories of landings misjudged and ending up in the sea, of loops initiated from 20 feet and of inverted landings where the pilot was unharmed. There was no-one to instruct these engineers so the process of learning to fly was a slow, hit-and-miss affair. No-one was known to be injured. Eventually the glider was left in the ground floor of the Mechanical Engineering building and was thought to be still there in 1952.

[If any reader knows the fate of the primary please contact the Adelaide University Gliding Club]

The Present Club

The present club was formed in 1976. It was called the Adelaide University Gliding Club and is still operational today. The club’s airfield was originally on the western side of the Hummocks range near Lochiel in South Australia’s mid North. The site was chosen to take advantage of ridge lift generated by the range during the cooler months when thermals are not so prolific. In 2004 the club moved operations to share the Barossa Valley Gliding Club site at Stonefield in the Riverland. Engineering students still feature strongly in the membership. The club has grown in strength and now operates a fleet of sailplanes. Launches are provided by a winch. Like the earlier clubs, the current operation is still heavily involved in flying training although this is now carried out in 2 seat sailplanes under the guidance of club instructors.

Lots of other interesting information about our past can be gleaned from our historical newsletter archive.


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