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Sunday, August 10, 2008

It’s Sunday, the day of the grand Lüsse airshow – and the weather has not cooperated. We have overcast skies (a solid deck of clouds at around 2000’) with occasional drops of rain falling and more in the afternoon forecast. The weatherman holds out no hope of a contest day, or indeed for much of anything that would keep unmotorized aircraft aloft in eastern Germany.

Actually, a thoroughly grim forecast like this is something of a blessing – no need to assemble and grid gliders, then stand around watching wings get wet, hoping for something improbable. Instead, tasks for all classes have been cancelled and today is given over to the airshow (which will certainly go on).

A big moment at the morning pilot meeting was the presentation of the top three for yesterday’s Open class task. Heinz Weissenbuehler has many talents, but an ability to appear indifferent when suffused with joy isn’t among them. He got a conspicuously loud ovation from the crowd.

Also notable and very popular was the second-place finisher, Alena Netusilova of the Czech Republic. She is one of just three female competitors here, and surely the only pilot who is the mother of six-month-old twins. This is possibly the best-ever daily WGC result by a woman; it certainly was an excellent flight. And it was achieved in an ASG-29, the only glider in the Open class with a span under 20 meters (most have 22 and more).

The contest launch (itself rather a grand spectacle) was to have been a feature of the airshow. With the day cancelled, it was necessary to ask for volunteers willing to grid their gliders and be launched, no doubt only to land a few minutes later. The entire German team had volunteered (or, possibly, had been volunteered). There was no stampede to fill the remaining 14 slots, even though free tows were offered. But in the end enough public-spirited pilots were found, so airshow spectators will be able to at least get the flavor of a contest launch.

There is an agreeable lack of regimentation at WGC 2008. Pilots and crews have been issued ID badges which entitle us to wander pretty much all over the airfield (under the assumption – often valid – that glider pilots know how to stay out of trouble on an airfield). Today is not an exception: Airshow spectators (of which at noon there appear to be several thousand, despite the weather) are restrained behind fences and barriers, but we are able to wander at will, including out onto the runway to inspect a host of interesting craft on display, staged for launch, or flying.

So far, I’ve seen:
The Ju-52 trimotor, carrying passengers
The ASW-20 sailplane with its jet auxiliary engine
A Stearman (large 1930s biplane used as a military trainer)
An Extra 300 (state-of-the-art 300-hp unlimited aerobatic monoplane)
The Messerschmitt Bf-108 (some say Me-108) observation plane
An L-19 Bird Dog (1960s single-engine military observation aircraft, build by Cessna)
A Grunau Baby (open-cockpit glider from the late 1930s)
A Slingsby T-21 (side-by-side open-cockpit glider)
An AN-2 (giant Russian single-engine 1000-hp biplane) carrying parachutists
The three Lo-100 aerobatic gliders
Several different types of modern aerobatic gliders
A Pitts Special (modern aerobatic biplane)

The Lo-100 gliders today have pyrotechnics mounted at their wingtips. These produce elegant trails of smoke during their act (and help spectators to spot them when they are high). But an intense fire burning at the tip of a wooden wing is certainly something to be wary of. And on one Lo-100 I noticed some small burn marks, caused by sparks flung off the smoke bomb – makes you wonder whether these are mounted a bit too close.

Despite occasional light rain, the spectators seem to be hanging in there and enjoying the show. Food vendors are doing a brisk business. Some are selling about what you’d expect: beer, bratwurst, chips, candy, ice cream. But there are surprises: one outfit is offering various kinds of unusual wine, including mead (made from honey) and cherry and blueberry wine – not items you’d be likely to find at any US airshow.

This isn’t an airshow on the scale of Oshkosh, but it certainly can’t have been easy or cheap to organize and stage. I hope the crowds are sufficient to justify the effort and expense.

Update: It's now 2pm and the rain is light but steady. Even the hardy German spectators are showing some signs of discouragement: all the sheltered spots are crowded and umbrellas are threatening to outnumber visible heads. But flying continues - it's scheduled to last until at least 4pm.

Further Update: It's 3pm, and the weather has remained marginally acceptable for an airshow. We just saw the Extra 300's routine (lots of rapid rolls, loops and many uncomfortable-looking outside maneuvers) and several parachutists who departed the AN-2. More rain is now spitting down, but in view of the grim forecast the day seems to have gone off reasonably well. I tried the mead and found it worthwhile, though not the equal of German beers.