Trips / History Tour / Wasserkuppe

Back to trip page Trip page This page contains excerpts from several sources found on the internet. It is gathered as background information for a write-up of a trip we made to Wasserkuppe. Wasserkuppe

History of Wasserkuppe

Unpowered flight was, during world war I, largely pushed into the background. After the war, the prohibitions of the Versailles Treaty concerned engine-powered aircraft, so it was natural that aviation enthusiasts leaned increasingly towards non-powered flight.

Even during the war, there were still some steadfast individuals. Here, especially Oskar Ursinus must be named since he created in 1908 with the journal Flugsport (Sports Flying) the means that would decisively contribute to the later stormy development of glider flight.

An important aviation-related group was made up of high-school graduates from Darmstadt, who teamed up to form the Flugsportvereinigung Darmstadt (Aviation Sports Association Darmstadt). They designed and constructed their own flight vehicles, and they can pride themselves for having discovered the Wasserkuppe, a mountain in the Rhön-mountains, already prior to the war when exploring the region for a suitable area for gliding.

FSV X, 1912
FSV X, 1912

At the Wasserkuppe, Hans Gutermuth, a high-school pupil from Darmstadt, covered already on July 22, 1912 with the biplane FSV X a distance of 838 meters in 112 seconds. Friedrich Harth and Willy Messerschmitt had performed glider flights in the Rhön-mountains since 1914. With the glider S-6, which had direct lift control, they succeeded in 1916 to soar for 3-5 minutes while attaining 15 meters height above the take-off point.

In July 1920, a first competition was held in the Rhön-mountains, initiated by an announcement in the journal Flugsport of the students at the Institute of Technology Dresden, Wolfgang Klemperer and Erich Meyer.

Oskar Ursinus

Oskar Ursinus
Oskar Ursinus

Carl Oskar Ursinus (March 11, 1877 - July 6, 1952) was a pioneer of German aviation and is remembered mainly for his contributions to sailplane designs and the sport of gliding. He has been nicknamed the Rhönvater ("Rhön father") because he founded Germany's first gliding club at the Wasserkuppe in the Rhön Mountains in 1920.

Ursinus was born in Weissenfels and attended Technical College in Mittweida. After graduation, he worked for Borsig on compressors for locomotives and spent some time working on mining machinery in Romania for the firm.

In 1908, back in Germany, Ursinus began to publish a magazine titled Flugsport (Sports Flying), since he had become fascinated by the new technology of flight. The magazine helped establish a network amongst Germany's aviation enthusiasts and led to the organisation of Germany's first international airshow.

He was conscripted into the German Army in 1914 and requested a position in aircraft design. The request was approved and he was posted to Gothaer Waggonfabrik designing warplanes. The famous series of Gotha bombers used by the German air corps throughout World War I were all based on an Ursinus design of 1915 that was refined and manufactured as the Gotha G.I. Ursinus' real passion, however, was for seaplanes, and in 1916 he designed a revolutionary seaplane fighter with retractable floats that was unfortunately destroyed before testing was complete.

This unusual German fighter prototype of 1916-17 was designed by Oskar Ursinus. In an attempt to improve manouvrability and reduce drag, it featured retractable floats which could be raised and lowered manually. This also required that the propeller be mounted on an extension shaft to prevent interference with the floats. One prototype was built, and production by Gotha was planned. Unfortunately, the prototype was destroyed early on and development was halted.

Ursinus fighter seaplane floats extended
Ursinus fighter seaplane, floats extended
Ursinus fighter seaplane, floats retracted
Ursinus fighter seaplane, floats retracted

Following the war, the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from building powered aircraft, and the attention of German aviators therefore turned to gliding. A plateau particularly suited to gliding, the Wasserkuppe, became a focal point for this activity, and in 1920, Ursinus organised a competition there. Twenty-four people attended the meeting between 15 July and 15 September 1920 including Wolf Hirth and other gliding pioneers (see also Rhön-Rossitten Gesellschaft on wikipedia).

Over the next decade, this grew in importance to become an international event. Ursinus also constructed the first clubhouse on the Wasserkuppe in 1924. He was pursuing experiments in human-powered flight when the outbreak of World War II intervened.

Following the war, powered flying was once again forbidden in Germany, but Ursinus lived just long enough to see this prohibition lifted.

Today, he is regarded in Germany as the father of gliding, and Germany's association for homebuilt aircraft, the Oskar Ursinus-Vereinigung (Oskar Ursinus Association) bears his name.

Excerpts from Wikipedia

For the competition at Wasserkuppe Willy Pelzner built a very light biplane hang glider with well braced lightweight cane covered in oiled paper. Pelzner was well placed in the 1920 contest with a 452 meters 52 seconds flight as well as 15 other flights, far more than some of the other competitors, but not enough to eclipse the achievements of Wolfgang Klemperer.

In 1920 Klemperer had joined the Aachen Aerodynamics Institute as an assistant to Professor Theodore von Karman. Alongside his academic career he also worked from 1922 to 1924 for Hugo Junkers at his glider plane manufacturing plant Aachener Segelflugzeugbau in Aachen, Germany.

Klemperer attained with his glider FVA-1 Schwatze Düvel (Black Devil) spectacular results: he covered a distance of 1,830 meters in 2 minutes and 22 seconds. The sailplane, which was based on Junker's ideas, designed as a monoplane with thick wings, was built by the Flugwissenschaftlicke Vereinigung Aachen (Flight-sciences Association Aachen).

For the first time, take-off was accomplished with the aid of a rubber-band catapult invented by the same Klemperer. Klemperer's record breaking flight and his subsequent flights in 1920 had an electric effect on young air-minded Germans. The regional technical institutes became bases for design groups striving to outdo each other in advancing motor-less flight.

Pelzner, 1920
Pelzner, 1920
Klemperer Black Devil, 1920
Klemperer Black Devil, 1920

At the 1921 Rhön meeting, Klemperer beat Orville Wright's duration record by 4 minutes in his new glider, Die Blaue Maus (The Blue Mouse). He was then beaten himself by Arthur Martens, who flew for 15 minutes 30 seconds in the Vampyr (Vampire), a revolutionary machine designed and built at the Hannover Technical Institute.

The Vampyr has been called the first true sailplane, and in one thrilling week during the summer of 1922, it raised the world soaring duration record to one hour, then two hours, and finally to more than three hours.

Three hours without an engine!

The news shocked the aeronautical world into recognizing a new regine of flight. Gliding was at once taken seriously. Permanent building were set up at the Wasserkuppe, and another soaring center was established on the sand dunes of Rossiten in East Prussia by the Rhön-Rossiten Gesellschaft, a new organization dedicated to the advancement of motorless flight.

Gottlob Espenlaub, 1921
Gottlob Espenlaub, 1921
Vampyr, 1922
Vampyr, 1922

Ferdinand Schulz

Ferdinand Schulz, 1922 Besenstiel
Ferdinand Schulz, 1922 Besenstiel

Ferdinand Schulz (1892-1929) of Germany, produced the Besenstiel in 1922, using bed sheets and broomsticks. When he wanted to participate in the Rhön gliding contest at the Wasserkuppe, his apparatus was banned as being too fragile.

Schulz made history when he flew the Besenstiel over the 50 km between Königsberg and Memel, east of Frankfurt, on July 12, 1923, while the following year he stayed aloft with the Besenstiel for 8 hours 24 minutes. In 1929 Schulz was killed in a motor plane crash due to wing failure.

In 1923, the Grandfather of all Sailplanes was succeeded by the Father of all Sailplanes: the D-9 Konsul – developed by the Academic Flying Group Darmstadt (Albert Botsch, Fritz Hoppe and Rudolf Spies) and built in cooperation with the Bahnbedarf (Railroad-Demands Corporation) in Darmstadt.

D-9 Konsul, 1923
D-9 Konsul, 1923

Within only three years since the beginning of the Rhön competitions, the sailplane had already developed into a form essentially valid still today.

Single-spar designs with torsion nose and light-weight construction soon became also common in powered-aircraft designs, again permitted in Germany. Examples are the Klemm L25, Messerschmitt M17 and the Messerschmitt M23.

The Rhön sailplane competitions were the events, which brought together scientists, designers and pilots, who directly exchanged their knowledge and stimulated further developments. The Wasserkuppe was their test range.

Klemm L25
Klemm L25, developed 1928
Messerschmitt M17
Messerschmitt M17, developed 1925

Soon the sailplanes became so efficient that only sometimes flight characteristics and, because of the good glide ratios, landing difficulties were criticized. Already in 1923, Ludwig Prandtl had suggested to equip high-quality sailplanes with air brakes or similar devices.

During these first four years, the academic flying groups developed, via the FVA-1 Black Devil in 1920, the FVA-2 The Blue Mouse in 1921, the H-1 Vampyr in 1921 and the D-9 Konsul in 1923, the ultimate sailplane. Today's sailplanes still have all their essential characteristics.

Wasserkuppe Aviator Monument

A monument to German aviators killed in World War I was erected in 1923 on the slopes of the Wasserkuppe, overlooking the glider flights of the fallen pilots heirs. The wording on the monument's plaque makes a connection between wartime efforts and peacetime efforts, and was placed in the context of the difficult period following world war I.

dead fliers remain
by our own efforts
fly again
and you will become a victor
by your own efforts.
Aviator Monument
Aviator Monument

The wording on the memorial indicates that the individual dead fliers of wartime were passing their torch to the German people as a group. Mass rallies and ceremonies held at the memorial drew surviving wartime pilots, who came to pay their respect to fallen comrades and to exhort (or join) their successors in learning to glide.

The martial ceremony, the heroic speeches and the patriotism at the inauguration on 30 August 1923 was not only consent. Oskar Ursinus only spent 16 lines to the spectacle in the aviation journal Luftsport.

On 9 August 1920, a pilot named Eugen von Loessl got killed when he crashed with his apparatus on the west slope of the Wasserkuppe. The date of the crash was 24 years after the fatal crash of Otto Lilienthal. Nowadays, every second Sunday in August a memorial service for all deceased pilots of all nations takes place. This celebration was originally on August 9.

In order to spread gliding still further, the Rhön-Rossitten-Society was founded in 1924, and in 1925 an associated research institute was established. Sports, technology and science complemented each other in gliding in a unique way: the propelling force upslope wind was discovered and tested by pilots; new knowledge was gained for meteorologists (e.g. about the movements of thunderstorm clouds and leeward waves) and for aerodynamicists and designers (e.g., about gust-load assumptions and flight characteristics).

Especially the very active Akafliegs were the ones who designed high-performance sailplanes, which provided new impetus to the Sailplane Movement. Since glider pilots and researchers of other nations wanted to learn from the German pioneers and to cooperate with them, the International Study Committee of Gliding was founded in 1931.

At the beginning of the thirties, gliding had abandoned rubber-cord-supported take-offs from mountain slopes.

The development and introduction of the winch launch and the launch by aircraft towing allowed gliders to also become airborne in plain country so that gliding experienced a wider spreading, and the professional manufacturing of gliders for training and high performance flights increased.

A large variety of planes were built. Alexander Lippisch, for instance, introduced with the Fafnir in 1930 the cranked wing (seagull-type wing), which was copied many times and was until about 1960 in vogue. It was not the alleged better directional stability but rather the aestetics of the seagull wing, which made the glider so attractive.

Alexander Lippisch Fafnir 1930
Alexander Lippisch's Fafnir from 1930

At the same time others saw progress in the large 30-meter span of August Kupper's Ku4 Austria as well as in the small D-28 Windspiel of the Akaflieg Darmstadt with a span of only 12 meter and a mass of 54 kg.

Another independent and successful way was pursued by the Akaflieg Munich with their steel-tube fuselage and their in-house designed airfoils; their glider Mü-13 was later build in series.

Ku4 Austria
August Kupper's Ku4 "Austria"
Akaflieg Darmstadt D 28 Windspiel
Akaflieg Darmstadt's D 28 Windspiel

At the end of the twenties, Alexander Lippisch built and tested tailless gliders, which were later improved and finally lead to the development of the rocket-powered aircraft Me 163.

In 1921, several railless gliders flew at the Wasserkuppe, however, the performances and characteristics of these vehicles were never very satisfying. They had some advantages but many disadvantages, which were not easily remedied, as the young aircraft designer Willy Messerschmitt found out the hard way.

Also the brothers Reimar and Walter Horten have built and tested in the thirties a number of interesting flying-wing gliders in Germany and after the second world war in Argentine.

At the beginning of the thirties, the name of the Rhön-Rossitten-Gesellschaft was changed to German Research Establishment of Gliding. This organization now also designed under the supervision of Hans Jacobs cantilever high-performance sailplanes, which were built by industry in series and essentially met the growing demand. Also smaller companies developed glider types.

When the nazi's came into power, their flight sports organization declared that the number of airplane types were to be limited, and new designs were undesirable. This was a severe set-back for the advanced individual designs of the Akafliegs and for the groups themselves. However, working groups were allowed to continue work, to do research and to build new sailplanes. These groups were involved in the development of glued fittings, two Olympic Sailplanes (Berlin B-8 and Munich Mü-17), a self launching motor glider (Chemnitz C-10), prone positions for the pilot (Stuttgart FS-17), gliders for measurements, with cambered and other flaps.

Olympic Sailplane Akaflieg Munich Mu 17
Olympic Sailplane Akaflieg Munich Mü 17
Olympic Sailplane Akaflieg B 8 Berlin
Olympic Sailplane Akaflieg B 8 Berlin
Chemnitz C-10
Chemnitz C-10
Stuttgart FS-17
Stuttgart FS-17

Particularly outstanding was in 1938 the Akaflieg Darmstadt D-30 Cirrus, a high-performance sailplane with a span of 20 meter. Hans Zacher carried out an extensive measurement program with the D-30 to determine performance and flight characteristics.

In 1934, Hans Jacobs started the exploration and development of spoilers and airbrakes for sailplanes. At that time, flights within clouds were common and permitted. Thus, it was easily possible that pilots, unskilled in blind-flying, exceeded the permitted maximum speed, which ofter resulted in wing fracture.

It was not possible to increase wing strength since this would mean too much additional weight for a low-drag light sailplane. Henze Hans Jacobs decided to develop an in-flight extendable flap system for both the upper and lower wing surfaces, which could be used to increase form as well as induced drag. With these airbrakes the terminal dive speed, being at that time for advanced gliders without flaps 400-500 km/h, could be limited to 200 km/h.

The dive-brakes were later improved at the Schempp-Hirth Company by Ulrich and Wolfgang Hütter; they are today known as SH-flaps. They are not only used as dive-brakes but also, as suggested by Prandtl, to adjust the glide angle during the landing approach.

Akaflieg Darmstadt D-30 Cirrus
Akaflieg Darmstadt D-30 Cirrus
Goppingen Minimoa Mo-2A 1937
Göppingen Minimoa Mo-2A, 1937

With the beginning of world war II in September 1939 almost all activities ceased. Until then, distances of up to 750 km, flight durations of up to 56 hours and altitudes of 7,000 meter above the take-off point were achieved in non-motorized flights. Finally, Erich Klöckner reached in 1940 an absolute altitude of 11,410 meter during a Föhn-(lee)-wave flight.

Following World War II, a US Army camp, radar station, and surveillance station were established there but when restrictions on German aviation were lifted in 1951, gliding soon returned to the Wasserkuppe where it has remained popular since. Beginning in the 1970s, the newer sport of hang gliding has also found a home there. Following the reunification of Germany and demise of the Soviet Union, the surveillance and radar installations were removed in the 1990s.

In 1970, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first competition, the Deutsches Segelflugmuseum (German Sailplane Museum) was opened on the plateau, with Neil Armstrong a guest of honour at the ceremony. The museum gained a new building in 1987. The Wasserkuppe is also the home of the Old-timer Segelflugclub (OSC - Oldtimer Gliding Club), dedicated to flying vintage sailplanes.

Deutsches Segelflugmuseum Wasserkuppe

FSV-X Darmstadt
FSV-X Darmstadt, 1912

The ILA 1909 in Frankfurt inspired some high school students from Darmstadt to pursue gliding. From 1911 they tested their home-built glider on the Wasserkuppe. On 22 July 1912 Hans Gutermuth flew in 110 seconds a distance of 840 meters with the FSV-X.

Blaue Maus
Blaue Maus Flugvereinigung Aachen, 1920

Following the Rhön glider competition of 1921, Wolfgang Klemperer flew the FVA-2 ("Blaue Maus") on 30 August 1921 to a new world record for continuous flight. After its launch from the Wasserkuppe he flew before a storm front in 13 minutes to Gersfeld. He broke the previous record of Orville Wright (9 minutes 45 seconds).

What would have become of gliding without the 1921 "Vampyr" of the Hannover Technical Institute? It was the "father" of all modern gliders, and it laid the foundation for later flight performance.

Vampyr Hannover 1921
Vampyr Hannover, 1921

FS-3 Besenstiel 1922
FS-3 Besenstiel, 1922
Ferdinand Schulz was obsessed with flying. He was not admitted to the Rhön competition of 1922 due to lack of strength of his FS-3 Besenstiel glider. Nearly two years later, Schulz set a world record of over 8 hours, 24 minutes in the dunes at Rossitten.
Ente 1928-29
Ente, 1928/29
Alexander Martin Lippisch was a German pioneer of aerodynamics. He made important contributions to the understanding of flying wings, delta wings and the ground effect. His most famous design is the Messerschmitt Me 163 rocket-powered interceptor. Lippisch's Ente (Duck) became the first rocket-powered aircraft to fly, with Fritz Stammer at the controls, on 11 June 1928. It was designed by Lippisch as a sailplane and first flown under power.
Olympia Meise 1939
Olympia Meise, 1939
The Olympia Meise was designed by Hans Jacobs in 1938 for the Olympic Games of 1940 in Helsinki. The outbreak of the second World War II prevented these Olympics.
Deutsche Segelflugmuseum