We have a treat for you today as Disney Imagineering Legend, Bob Gurr, takes to the clouds. Who says man can’t fly, Bob can!

Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1961, so here we go. Located at Disney’s WDI Creative Campus in Glendale California is the historic old Grand Central Air Terminal, which was the major airline terminal serving the Los Angeles area in the 1930s. Plans are under way to restore the terminal building to it’s authentic glory to serve as a multi-functional event facility for both Disney and the city of Glendale.

During my final year as a Disney Imagineer, my office was located in the terminal building overlooking two beautiful palm trees. There was significance in that under these same trees in 1939 I first saw a glider – it was love at first sight. It was the occasion of an air show, one feature of which was an aerobatic glider demonstration – oh was I ever hooked! The palm trees and the gliders are illustrated in John Underwood’s famous book Madcaps, Millionaires and “Mose”. Also visit http://www.grandcentralairterminal.com for more.

I was 8 years old at the time, so learning to fly gliders would have to wait until I was at least 14, and also to wait for WWII to end. The closest I could get to glider was to watch later glider demonstrations for many more years, and enjoy a few airplane rides as a high school kid in the Civil Air Patrol. I built and flew model gliders, but it was not until 1961 at age 29 that the chance to learn glider flying finally arrived. I joined the Orange County Soaring Association located not far from Disneyland. Glider clubs are a bit like little league – everyone volunteers to make things affordable. Members help with maintenance and flight instruction.

Soaring? What the heck is that? It’s the challenge of flying a motor-less aircraft using only the free power of the atmosphere. Pretty simple, fly only in air that goes up, don’t fly in air that go’s down. Just like playing chess, once you know the 14,000 moves, you’ve got it. Yeah right, it’s going to take a long time to be good enough to stay up for hours at a time. Remember, every minute, a glider is descending, say 150 feet per minute (FPM). You have to find air that is rising 150 FPM just to maintain altitude, and much more than that to climb and go somewhere. Within a few years I was able to stay up as long as I wanted, reaching great heights and traveling many miles around Southern California on good days.

Good days are when atmospheric conditions provide ample rising air. Aha – there’s the catch. How do you know when it’s a good day, and how to utilize the rising air, called lift. Lift is opposite to sink, or descending air. As you gain knowledge of atmospherics, learn what the different cloud formations mean – some with lift, others denoting sink, you gradually increase your success rate over time. Powered airplanes are a snap, turn on the motor and go fly. Gliders require a lot of skill and knowledge, a lot of extra helping hands, and typically a tow plane to launch you up high enough to start a soaring flight.

Readers can learn more at the Soaring Society of America site at http://www.ssa.org. A glider typically is stored in a trailer so that the pilot can transport it like a boat to a favorite launching site. The wings and tail are engineered to be quickly attached in a few minutes to be ready to fly. Since sailplanes (another name for a glider) have a single wheel, an assistant holds the wing up and runs a few steps as the tow plane starts the takeoff. At an appropriate altitude (such as 2,000′), hopefully in lift, the sailplane pilot releases his end of the tow rope and the tow plane returns to the launching site, usually an airport with glider operations. Both clubs and private owners operate in this manner.

Lift producing cumulus clouds over the San Gabriel Mountains
Lift producing cumulus clouds over the San Gabriel Mountains

Once free of the tow plane, the search for lift begins – ah yes, the chess game starts. Pilots who are just learning often return in a few minutes since they were not yet proficient in finding and “working” lift. After maybe months or years, most sailplane pilots become experts at staying up as long as they like, if the day’s lift is excellent. The records for soaring altitude and distance are impressive; 50,724 feet high and 1,402 miles distance. All of this completely without an engine using only the power of the atmosphere and the skill of the pilot. The challenge of soaring flight is not unlike sex or heroin – it’s fully addictive!

1965 Czech-made Blanik two-place sailplane
1965 Czech-made Blanik two-place sailplane

Of course, in 50 years and 2,250 hours of enjoyable soaring I never reached those goals, but I did get to 21,000 feet, made flights as long as 350 miles and over 8 hours duration. Learning to fly as a student in the glider club using a couple of old wooden WWII train gliders, I soon transitioned as an instructor in modern USA-built Schweizer trainers, then onward to my own private aircraft. The first was the famed Czech-built two place Blanik, an all metal beauty. I imported it from behind the “iron curtain” in the cold war days of the 1960s. A gorgeous thing of beauty, I gave over 100 folks their first sailplane ride in it.

In 1974 I bought a German-made all composite small aerobatic Salto sailplane. I could do loops, lazy eights and such all over the sky any time, besides delighting in long afternoons over the Southern California mountains and deserts. On almost every flight I would join hawks and eagles soaring to great heights in the strong thermals (lift from ground heating). There are other types of lift; wave lift from wind bouncing over mountains, slope lift from wind blowing against a mountain ridge, and cloud lift (thermals which reach into cumulus clouds). With the Salto on a trailer, I was able to travel to many western soaring sites to utilize the sometimes very powerful lift to be found over the spectacular landscape, such as the High Sierras.

1974 German-made Salto single place aerobatic sailplane
1974 German-made Salto single place aerobatic sailplane

Since another dream was to fly powered aircraft, I sold the Salto to buy a German-built Taifun motorglider. This is a cross between a glider and an airplane. One can take off using the engine, then turn off the engine when entering an area of lift. “Are you nuts?…turn off a perfectly good engine when you are over the mountains”. That’s the question I got asked all the time. In fact, I could climb way faster in a hot thermal than by using the engine. I never used the engine much above 9,000 feet even though most summer flights were to 18,000 ft. The lift goes much higher, but that is the altitude limit for flight under Federal Aviation visual flight rules.

1985 German-made Taifun two place motorglider
1985 German-made Taifun two place motorglider

I had always been interested in meteorology, geography, and seismology. Soaring combined all these interests since I could observe earth characteristics from high altitude as well as learn where good lift was to be found. You see, this is how the 14,000 soaring moves, like chess, are slowly learned over time. Another thing learned is how birds fly in lift. They are experts, always centered in the best lift, so I would join them, circling in formation as we both rose as high as the lift might go. Yes, I do fly with the birds. It was a rare flight that did not have my helpful avian friends to play with.

Soaring view over the mountains with the propellor stopped
Soaring view over the mountains with the propellor stopped

When the weather was not good for soaring, the Taifun was a wonderful power plane to fly anywhere I wanted to go. Like a sailplane, the wings can fold allowing a 57 foot span to fold up to only 8 feet wide to store in a hanger. Under FAA supervision I was able to do all my own maintenance, making sure everything was in perfect order. For 12 years I was based at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, fitting in with all the commercial jet airliners with ease. Even though the Taifun was a motorglider, I’m required to operate under the same flight rules as all other aircraft. In later years I was hangered at a smaller local airport.

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Starting under a couple of palm trees, I had a wonderful 71 years of passion for soaring flight, 50 of which I was able to fly….fly with the birds.

Now that’s real Soarin’ over California folks. Take a moment to leave Bob a comment below. Would you have the nerve to take to the sky in a glider?

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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."