A new era of flight instruction at Purdue takes wing

January 15, 2014  

Fehsenfeld glider

Fred Fehsenfeld, a Purdue mechanical engineering alumnus, stands near Sky Dancer, a Pipistrel Sinus glider he gifted to Purdue. The gift effectively ushers in a new era of glider instruction and revives the Purdue Glider Club. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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Thanks to a World War II fighter pilot’s passion for flight and Purdue, students in the College of Technology and the Department of Aviation Technology will be soaring through the skies once again.

Fred and Barbara Fehsenfeld landed on campus Tuesday (Jan. 14) to help unveil their gift to a new generation of professional flight students -- a Pipistrel Sinus glider named Sky Dancer. The Fehsenfelds attended a luncheon at the Purdue Airport, where the glider was later unveiled.

The gift and the glider effectively usher in a new era of glider instruction and revive the Purdue Glider Club. Even after flying 86 missions as a fighter pilot and retiring from flying 20 years ago, Fehsenfeld remembers his beloved gliding club at Purdue. Fehsenfeld, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps on his 18th birthday, returned to Purdue after the war and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering.

When a current flight student told him the glider club had not been available to students for several years, the former pilot made it his new mission to help today’s flight students experience the joy of soaring that only gliders can provide.

The glider arrives at Purdue just in time for the fifth anniversary of the "Miracle on the Hudson," when pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger glided a U.S. Airways Airbus with a dead engine to a safe landing on the Manhattan river. Many experts say the Purdue graduate was able to achieve the feat because Sullenberger was a glider pilot and instructor dating to his undergraduate years at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

The new Pipistrel Sinus is a motorized glider, which will provide a slightly different experience from what Fehsenfeld had in 1941.

“New members primarily did the manual labor of pulling the nylon line out to the glider from the Model A spool and keeping the wings level as the glider gathered momentum on takeoff. For this kind of labor we were rewarded with glider lessons,” Fehsenfeld says. And for a learning experience, his inaugural flight at age 17 was a memorable one.

“My first lesson was terrific, but unfortunately we got too far from the airport and made a force landing in a cow pasture,” he recalls. “My instructor hitchhiked back to the airport to get a truck, and I was instructed to get a stick and defend the glider from the cows as they had a liking for banana oil that was used to glue the glider cloth to the frame.”

Professional flight major Michael Pence, who will be president of the new Purdue Soaring Club, promises that members will have access to glider resources and a glider flight simulator as part of the new Soaring Center created in conjunction with the Fehsenfeld gift. The Soaring Center will be housed in the Holleman-Niswonger Flight Simulator Center at the Purdue Airport.

“Gliders fly differently from airplanes, but they share all of the same components,” says Robert Moser, manager of Purdue’s flight simulator center and a certified glider instructor.

“You can point to many airplane accidents that have been attributed to a lack of basic flying skills. Flying gliders is very much getting back to the basics of flying. This type of flying is new to many of today’s flight students.”

Moser says the club will reach out to soaring clubs in Indiana to help build their skills and their flight hours. They also hope to help with glider instruction.

Because gliders are fuel-efficient, the Soaring Club also plans a contest among members to test their ability to make cross-country flights with the least amount of fuel.

Of course, there is an educational benefit. Thanks to the Fehsenfelds’ gift, students who fly the glider will be able to spread their wings and also earn flight hours, which are necessary for certification and certain pilot jobs after graduation.

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