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Cape Cod Kitty Hawk

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!

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