Cape Cod Kitty Hawk

Cape Cod Life  /  September/October 2020 /

Writer: Chris White

Before people began to take flying machines—and even space bound shuttles and rockets—for granted, the innovations in flight fascinated much of the globe’s population. People had dreamed of flying, perhaps since they first saw birds in the sky and felt a desire to soar. Leonardo da Vinci loved the idea of flying and even tested an unsuccessful flying machine in 1496; the Smithsonian Institute states that he produced over 35,000 words and 500 drawings on the subject of aviation. His ideas about flight, especially those outlined in his “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” a twenty-odd page document published (posthumously, of course) in the 19th Century, significantly contributed to the development of human flight. Interest in flying has ebbed and flowed in popular consciousness, but the fact that the Smithsonian devoted an entire museum to “Air and Space” demonstrates its importance. What has been nearly lost, and is certainly absent from basic history books, is the influential part that Cape Cod played in the development of flight; a soaring school in Wellfleet that operated for just a few years in the late 1920s laid the runway for aerial advancements around the globe. 

For decades, little balsa wood airplane kits with rubber band drives were popular kids’ toys. A variation on this flying design is the slingshot glider. These toys were usually racier, shaped more like jet fighters or darts or even hang gliders. Kids would hold the slingshot in one hand, hook the nose of the jet over a powerful rubber band, then pull the airplane back, stretching the band to its limits before letting go. Depending on the wind and the quality of the toy, the aircraft could glide impressive distances. However, very few children playing with these toys realize that they are miniature versions of the real gliders that helped advance the field of aviation. Similar to the rubber band launcher, the gliders used massive bungie cords, and instead of mere seconds, they would soar for minutes—and eventually hours or even days—at a time. The Wright Brothers 1902 glider presented a major breakthrough, and, according to the Smithsonian, the aerial pioneers would fly it between 700 and 1,000 times in September and October of that year alone. Orville Wright would note to his mother, “We now hold all world records” for flying. Their flights often took them on distances of 500-600 feet and set the stage for their first motorized airplane, which they flew the following year. Even while the brothers worked on developing powered aircraft, however, they continued to experiment with glider soaring, and in their 1911 model, Orville set a new world record for time aloft, clocking in at nine minutes, 45 seconds in a 40 mph upslope wind. His world record would stand for 10 years, and it became a kind of standard that other pilots tried to beat. It wasn’t until 1929 that another American would top this achievement. And this is, indirectly, how the dunes of Truro and Wellfleet came into play. 

At the end of WWI, the Treaty of Versailles banned military aviation in Germany, so pilots there turned to non-motorized gliders. Because of the restrictions, they made significant advances, and in 1921 an engineer and pilot named Wolfgang Klemperer flew a “sailplane” for 13 minutes, breaking Wright’s 10-year-old record. Klemperer emigrated to the USA in 1924, where he played an important role in the area of aerospace engineering. It was soon after that another German took flight in Truro. On July 26, 1928, to the delight of a large crowd of aviation enthusiasts and golfers from the course nearby, Peter Hesselbach was launched from Corn Hill in Truro by massive bungie cords. He flew to the crowd’s astonishment for 58 minutes. In a film clip from the event, one of the spectators can be heard marveling, “Gee, he has perfect control, hasn’t he,” as Hesselbach buzzes past the throng of people at the top of Corn Hill. Three days later, Hesselbach would soar—without landing—for a total of 120 miles, making loops over Cape Cod Bay for over four hours. While the world record for soaring at the time had stretched all the way to 14 hours, Hesselbach’s Cape flight set the record for the USA, and the fanfare helped to establish a young gliding school in Wellfleet.

The era between the wars would come to be known as the Golden Age of Aviation, and in 1927, Charles Lindbergh made international news when he flew the Spirit of St. Louis on what most people believe was the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight. (In fact, English pilot John Alcock completed a transatlantic flight with his navigator, Arthur Whitten Brown, and, according to the History Channel, “a sextant, whisky and coffee,” on June 15, 1919.) Lindbergh’s flight truly ignited the possibilities of flight in an entire generation, and gliding was seen as an entry point. In this regard, the USA had fallen far behind portions of Europe, especially Germany, where significant progress was being made. More people began building gliders at home, and the demand for actual training rose steeply. Enter J.C. Penney III, the son of the department store magnate. Although the Penney family hailed from Missouri (and thus shared a connection with the Spirit of St. Louis airplane), Penney chose Truro and Wellfleet for a glider school because this area of the Cape shared characteristics with a site in Germany. Bob Randall of Harwich, a soaring enthusiast who first flew at age 14 and who has been compiling a history of the glider school and its diaspora, explains that Penney had been working with the German pilots and had invested around $75,000 ($1.1 million in today’s value) in the development of a soaring program. “The Cape resembled Wasserkuppe with its dunes, the ability to land on the beach and the available west wind,” says Randall. In partnership with his American Motorless Aviation Corporation (MAC), a gliding club, Penney established the flight training school in Wellfleet. “The initial glider flights took place at Highland Light in Truro,” notes Randall. “In fact, a lot of the flying in America started here, then pilots moved on to places like Elmira, NY, Detroit and San Diego.”

Penney’s MAC leased land in South Wellfleet from the Cook family, where David and Laurie Sexton currently own and run the cottages of Cook’s by the Ocean. Laurie Sexton’s grandmother was the owner of the property at the time, and she approved the construction of the glider school. Fairly quickly, Randall says, “they built cottages along with a maintenance hanger. About 150 students attended the school, and they paid $150 each, which was a lot of money back then (about $2,200 in 2020).” In a 1999 interview for Hang Gliding Magazine, Dave Sexton informed author George Ferris: “My wife tells me that her grandmother recalled that the local people did not like the German pilots being here. They were convinced that they were Luftwaffe (air force pilots) training for the next world war.” 

Regardless of the skeptics, plenty of people enjoyed watching the flights, the pilots and instructors were effective, and the glider school enjoyed publicity in the pages of Popular Science and National Geographic; the Boy Scouts of America would offer primary training here, says Randall. Penney drew publicity, as well, although more for his exploits as a playboy than for his prowess in the air. As South Wellfleet resident Pam Tice, who has been blogging about the area’s history since 2012, explains, “Penney was 24-years-old, a graduate of Princeton, and was fined for drunkenness and drunk driving on the Cape a month after [Hesselbach’s flight].” He was also already divorced, having been married while a student, for a grand total of two days in 1924. Tice writes that locals described the flying scene as “‘wealthy summer visitors’ motoring to watch the gliding activities.” 

Mostly due to the Cape Cod Glider School, the National Soaring Museum, in Elmira, NY, recognizes Truro as “Soaring Site #1.” One of the school’s most famous and most influential pilots was Ralph Barnaby of the US Navy, who would go on to a distinguished career in which he achieved the rank of Captain, though Bob Randall notes, “If he hadn’t been so focused on gliding, he probably would have made admiral.” Barnaby, who had previously flown with the Wright brothers, enrolled in the school and made news by quickly smashing Orville’s American gliding record (which still stood despite the times that German pilots had recorded both in Europe and on the Cape). In a 1978 article for Omni Magazine, Barnaby recalls his groundbreaking (pun intended) flight, which happened almost by accident: “It was the Summer of 1929. I was just trying to get my certificate at the Cape Cod Glider School. I already had my A and B certificates. For the C, the soaring certificate, you had to stay above the altitude of your launch point for five minutes. So they launched me in a glider called a Prüfling from Corn Hill on the bay side of the Cape. I started cruising up and down the ridge and I passed the required five minutes. Then began thinking of that nine minutes and 45 seconds so I kept on until passed 15 minutes.”

Captain Ralph Barnaby would go on to make history by dropping from the dirigible USS Los Angeles in 1930, a feat that set the stage for testing the X-15 rocket plane, and later, NASA’s Space Shuttle. He was recognized as an “Early Bird,” an award given to pilots who flew prior to 1916, and held the Glider Pilot’s Certificate No. 1, signed by Orville Wright, with whom he maintained an enduring friendship.

Although the Cape Cod Glider School operated for only a couple of years, closing in 1930 after the stock market crashed, its impact upon the field of aviation continues to reverberate, nearly a century later, as humans continue to pursue the boundaries of flight farther into “Space: the final frontier.”

For more Cape and Islands history, click here!

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.