They Came from Alabama

By Stephen Lindenbaum, life member and former president,

and Dr. Henry Baker, founding member and former president, Southern Eagles Soaring Club

Soaring in the early 1990s southeastern United States existed in pockets. There were active clubs east of Atlanta, in the Birmingham and Huntsville areas, plus a well-known commercial operation east of Chattanooga. Most of these were a long drive for the soaring enthusiast at Auburn University so in late 1991 plans were made to form a new club in central eastern Alabama. The three people with this vision were Glenn Lawler, a restaurateur from Auburn, Dr. Henry Baker, a professor from Auburn University, and George Kling, a pilot with the aviation department at the university. Other who helped in the beginning were J. B Stokely, Michael Kamen (the first SES instructor) and Charles Bell.

Glenn and Henry were already active in the restoration and flying of sailplanes. They had refinished an ASW-15 and Glenn was working on an LS-3a. Henry was also building a Woodstock. The group decided they needed a two-seater to start the club. After some searching, they settled on a Schleicher Ka-7 from Oklahoma. They brought the ship back in January 1992. Southern Eagles Soaring was incorporated in the state of Alabama in May of that year. Later that year, they decided to add a single-place Schleicher Ka-8b to the fleet. Glenn and George brought one back from up north.

The next issues to address were where to fly and how to launch. Glenn owned a 180 horsepower Cessna 175 he and Glen Adkins were slowly converting to a towplane. With the towplane not yet being ready the decision was made to ground launch using an auto-pulley tow. They had “borrowed” a pulley for auto-pulley launching when they bought the Ka-7. It was obvious that Auburn airport would be unsuitable due to traffic congestion, but just down the road was the little-used 5000-foot runway of Moton-Anderson airport in Tuskegee. This airport was once one of two training fields for the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Tuskegee appeared to be ideal. They began “experimenting” with auto launching. Glenn taught himself how to fly auto launches while Henry and George taught themselves how to fly the tow car. (Actually Glenn went to Germany for a week and was checked out for ground launch on a winch.) After several heart-stopping episodes, they declared themselves expert and ready to conduct ground launch clinics for licensed glider pilots.

This still left one final problem. They needed an instructor to teach new students and qualify members for ground launch. They did not know of a local instructor with a ground launch endorsement. Glenn knew Steve Lindenbaum, an instructor with the Lockheed Soaring Club flying at Chilhowee, who had no restrictions on his instructor’s license. Glenn contacted Steve and made arrangements to hold a ground-launch clinic weekend at Chilhowee in November 1992. They would do auto-pulley tows on the 2600-foot grass strip to qualify pilots for ground launching. Designated Pilot Examiner Mike Reisman agreed to sign off pilots graduating from the clinic to have their aero-tow-only restrictions removed. To assist the fledgling club do as many ground launch check-outs as possible, the Lockheed Soaring Club added their L-13 Blanik to the SES Ka-7 for the weekend. Glenn and Steve together flew over sixty launches during the two-day period. Many pilots were approved for ground lunch. One of the first to go through was David McGaughey who later joined Southern Eagles as an instructor in 1993. Under David’s tutelage, a formal instruction program was established making SES a true teaching club. The club has never lost sight of the need to have a training program for new members in order to remain a healthy, growing organization. Southern Eagles Soaring was off and flying.

More members joined. Soaring was good at Tuskegee. In the pursuit of higher, more powerful tows, Glenn built a truck-mounted two-drum winch to rival the best from Germany. Patterned after the winches Glenn had seen during his visits to Germany, Henry commented, “theirs were Mercedes, but ours was pure Detroit”.

One problem continued to plague the club - lack of a hangar. Each weekend the club would trailer their two sailplanes onto the airport and assemble them. Each evening they would take them apart and put them back on the trailers. This was taking a toll on the membership and they realized the need to be able to keep at least the Ka-7 assembled. No hangars were available at Tuskegee but there was plenty of land available, so they approached the airport management about building a hangar. They were refused. They knew they had to move or parish.

The chief flight instructor at the light-aircraft fixed base operation at Tuskegee, Jacob Luitjens, decided to move his operation, AirVentures, Inc., to a large empty hangar in LaGrange, Georgia. Through Jacob, the soaring club found out: 1. The airport management at LaGrange wanted to increase their operations count to better qualify for federal airport funding and 2. There was space available in the AirVentures hangar for the gliders. The SES officers met with the LaGrange airport management and a verbal agreement was struck. In 1997 Southern Eagles Soaring moved to LaGrange. They brought Glenn’s winch but realized that because of the cross-runway layout, it would be impractical for launching. Local airport management felt that a wire hanging in the air near the powered aircraft traffic pattern was a safety issue. Glenn, in the meantime, finished the towplane for the club to use. Soon that became the method of choice for lunching.

The history of Southern Eagles Soaring would be incomplete without the mention of a silent benefactor. A quiet, unassuming, retired industrialist from Columbus, Georgia, and an avid sailplane pilot and collector, Harold Buck provided much needed capital through the early days of SES. Harold came to Tuskegee for a ground launch in his Ventus in November of 1992. He was so impressed he joined the club and became Vice-President the next year. It would probably be impossible to list all of the support and contributions Harold made to SES and to soaring in general. He was a truly remarkable man. In 1995, Harold made available to SES pilots two sailplanes from his collection - an Italian-designed, French-built M-200 two-seater and a Schweizer 1-26 for the cost of insurance. Upon his death in the late 1990’s, Harold bequeathed them to SES. The M-200 was sold to a syndicate of SES members to raise capital. The 1-26 continued operating as a second club single-seater.

By the end of the decade, the club had reached more than 30 members. Membership was becoming diverse, with two-thirds coming from the Atlanta area. Other members came from as far away as Montgomery, Alabama. As the club grew, it was recognized that it needed to be wean itself off the financial dependence on individual members as much as possible. The club agreed to buy the towplane from Glenn in 2000. Several members worked on it to install a new STOL conversion kit.

The following year it was obvious that a new two-seater was needed to replace the now tired Ka-7. The Ka-7, sometimes called “Mother Goose”, had taught a multitude of students to soar including Tim McGowen, the first SES student to learn soaring from scratch in the club back in 1993. To raise capital, the 1-26 was sold to a former member now living out west. After what proved to be an international search by several SES members, an L-23 Super Blanik was located in Canada. With a loan from a dozen SES members, the ship was secured in mid-summer of 2001.

That same year two SES members, following in the spirit of Harold Buck, offered their Ka-6CR to the club for rated pilots to fly in exchange for insuring and hangaring it. The fleet now included a modern trainer, two fun-to-fly single-seaters and a towplane. The club had a solid foundation on which to grow.

In May 2002, Southern Eagles will see its tenth birthday. One of the original members is still in the club. The membership includes five instructors and many tow pilots. The skies above are blue and the future ahead looks bright.