By Bill Hill

By the mid-1930s, the United States was in the throes of recovering from the Great Depression. Times were hard, but even so, there was a budding industry which was making great headway. That was aviation.

World records were being readily set because until they were flown, there had been no such records. Even though the development of aircraft was making great strides, ownership of those illustrious flying machines was expensive. This raised the question, how might one become airborne for extended periods of time on a limited budget? Why gliders of course.

Engineless aircraft could be built for a fraction of the cost of the aeroplane of the day. Not only that, a glider could be launched into the wind from a ridge on which the wind was blowing at a right angle with nothing more than manpower to get it airborne. This of course is how the Wright Brothers made their first flights with the Wright Glider before an engine was added and in 1903, and it became the Wright Flyer. Many gliders of that time and for that matter, well into the 1940s, were very primitive contraptions called primary gliders wherein the pilot sat in the open breeze on a rail below the wings. The performance of these early flyers was less than stellar. Then came World War I.

The treaty of Versailles forbade the Germans from use of powered aircraft with which to rebuild their air force, so they reverted to the development of high performance gliders which, by virtue of their glide ratio, were now called sailplanes.

Pilots then flew these craft while enclosed within the fuselage. These high performance gliders had long tapered wings which spanned 50 feet or more. One of the more popular wing designs became known as the “gull wing” as it bore a marked resemblance to that of seagull. Sailplanes of this ilk were aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Even the molecules of air through which they majestically flew were quite happy to yield to their graceful presence.

Because wings of this shape became the accepted norm of that time, other designers followed the German lead. In the United States, a New Mexican engineer named Harland Ross created a high performance glider in 1936 at the behest of a Hollywood actor named Harvey Stephens; it became the RS-1 Zanonia. The “R” was in recognition of the designer, Harland Ross whereas the “S” was a nod to the chap who financed the design and construction of the Zanonia. The glider-sailplane was then flown by Mr. Stephens from the cliffs of Tory Pines, California.

Although Stephens had the craft built in order to slip the surly bonds of Earth, he designed this work of art for one purpose, and that was to fly cross-country, which he did during the 1936 glider nationals wherein he placed third. The Zanonia was then sold to John Robinson, in which he won the 1940, ’41 and ’46 nationals.

Harland Ross

Although the sailplane slipped into obscurity as newer designs made it obsolete for competition, it has risen to grace hall of the Southwest Soaring Museum located at the east end of Moriarty. This work of art is certainly worth the trip to the Museum to be viewed along with the vast collection of both motorless and self-launching sailplanes.

The contents of Museum can be viewed by appointment, or on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Find the Southwest Soaring Museum online at swsoaringmuseum.org.