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Soaring through history- Gliders subject of book & museum exhibit
By BOB DARROW   - 06/29/2006

Traverse City Record Eagle

Michael Baker of Lake Ann makes a turn over Crystal Lake in a glider. Baker is a member of the Northwest Soaring Club, which flies out of Frankfort Airport nearly every day. Baker learned to fly in th
FRANKFORT On a Monday afternoon, Dow Memorial Field is left to the glider pilots. The airport is all but deserted; hours pass without a takeoff or landing.

At the far end of the runway, the door of a lone hangar is raised.

The hangar belongs to the Northwest Soaring Club. Inside, club members Pete Brancheau and Doug Hoverter stand slouched under the wing of a newly rehabbed Schweitzer 233 sailplane. It's a crude training glider, Brancheau said, not built for performance like sleek, modern models. But it's big, a broad, 50-foot wingspan helping to keep it aloft without the luxury of an engine.

Hoverter is the mechanic and the group's tow pilot, carrying gliders up to several thousand feet in the single-engine taildragger "Spirit of Stollie." Brancheau, 40, is a self-confessed flight junkie, and arguably the future of a club whose core members are in their 70s and 80s.

He steps out of the hangar and squints toward the sky. He's looking for clouds to form, indicating the presence of thermals pockets of rising air that gliders pilots ride up like escalators.

"This is like church to me," he said. "I don't know if you have that enthusiasm in a lot of the people. The interest is just kind of waning."

On this particular Monday, it's just Brancheau, Hoverter and the spirit of Stollie.

To the visitor, a small sign at the entrance to Airport Road advertising glider rides is the only evidence of the club's existence. A lot has changed since the late 1930s, when the city flirted briefly with the title of "Gliding and Soaring Capital of the United States."

That era is the subject of an exhibit that's on display at the Empire Historical Museum through September. It was compiled by Pete and Jeff Sandman, who also have published a new book, "Soaring and Gliding: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Area."

There were few roads that led to thesparsely populated northern part of the state when Arthur Schultz, a Detroit businessman, started bringing a group of glider pilots on weekend expeditions to the bluffs near Empire.

"These guys really were great explorers," said Frankfort resident and local historian Pete Sandman. "They were always looking for bigger and better places to fly their craft."

The pilots found the conditions around Sleeping Bear Dunes ideal, taking advantage of lift created at the ridges to launch their sailplanes, and landing softly on the beaches of Lake Michigan.

The weekend adventures inspired camaraderie. Elaine Larson, whose father was a glider pilot, remembers the first meets.

"Sometimes they stayed up so long you had to turn on the car lights so they would know where to land," said Larson, a Frankfort resident. "They bunked beneath the wings of their gliders at night because they couldn't afford motels."

Those early trips blossomed into regional and national soaring meets in the late 1930s, as leading pilots from around the country discovered the draw of the area. Lewin Barringer, a hall of fame pilot who wrote what is considered the Bible of soaring, called Sleeping Bear Dunes one of the best and safest places to fly, second only to the traditional soaring capital of Elmira, N.Y.

In 1937, changing winds moved the glider pilots to Frankfort, where they would stay, hosting national meets in 1938 and 1939. Those meets drew nationwide attention, creating a buzz when hall of fame pilot Ted Bellak crossed Lake Michigan from Wisconsin at 18,000 feet, and garnering media coverage from the likes of the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, National Geographic and LIFE.

Most importantly, the meets attracted tourists.

At the time, only the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and Winter Carnival in Petoskey were significant tourist draws in northern Michigan. The Sleeping Bear Dunes wouldn't become a National Lakeshore until 1970.

Sandman credits the glider pilots with jump-starting the tourism industry along the lakeshore.

"It was really this soaring that got people interested in coming to the area," Sandman said. "It was the spark."

Glider pilot Stan Corcoran, a Hollywood transplant, opened the Frankfort Sailplane Company in 1938 and a school of gliding the next year. The company, which later moved to Illinois and folded, was awarded a contract to produce training gliders for the military.

The popularity of soaring dropped after the onset of World War II, when the Army began to confiscate gliders for training purposes.

Tourist attraction

Elaine Larson sits behind a picnic table along the runway. She's spent countless weekends in that seat, signing up tourists for glider rides, managing the soaring club's books.

Her father, Zada Price, revived soaring in Frankfort after the war with her brother and her husband, Stollie. The club thrived until Price was killed in a gliding accident in 1960.

Stollie and Elaine Larson were founding members of the Northwest Soaring Club in 1973. That same year, the club hosted the National Soaring and Glider Festival, which again drew crowds to Frankfort for the next 12 years, with Pete Sandman acting as the festival's executive secretary.

Soaring is still a tourist attraction club members help finance their operation by giving rides on the weekends but the days of bonfires on the beach and parking motor homes at the airport are gone.

"There's not really a festive atmosphere about it anymore," Brancheau said. "It's a different mindset in this day and age."

He blames the shift partly on stricter regulations and partly on dwindling membership. The club is still reeling from the recent loss of their driving force, Stollie Larson, who died on June 3 at age 81.

"Stollie and I were out here because we loved being here," Brancheau said. "You don't have that level of commitment in the club anymore."

The club has considered moving to Thompsonville, where there are better thermals for high-altitude soaring.

"It's a damn poor location for soaring," Dave Harden, the club's vice president, said of their Frankfort home. "It's the best location for scenic rides."

Local pilots have left the ridges of Lake Michigan in favor of airports, which eliminate the logistical problems of hauling sailplanes to and from the beach, and provide access to inland thermals.

Ridge-soaring is left to the hang gliders and paragliders, who are still out on the lake almost every weekend on a piece of land the local hang gliding club owns in Elberta.

Bill Fifer, a local hang gliding and paragliding instructor, said although the weather conditions are unpredictable along the lake, it's still some of the best terrain out there.

"When it's good, it's really good," Fifer said.

The glider pilots agree the natural landscapes are the main selling point for keeping soaring alive in Frankfort. Brancheau boasts of the "unparalleled" views along the dunes, Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan.

And from several thousand feet, Larson says, the problems you leave behind on the ground seem to shrink.

"All the mountains become little mole hills," she said. "It's like a whole world opens up, and it's the most amazing scenery you've ever seen in your life."

The Empire Historical Museum is open from 1 to 4 p.m. daily starting July 1; closed Wednesdays. "Soaring and Gliding: The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Area" will be available at area bookstores.

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