History in the air

More than 80 years after the Gibbs brothers flew their homemade glider over Warburn near Griffith, it continues to generate interest.

Many have wondered what it would be like to fly and it’s been a pilot who has focused on how Gibbs flew. Dennis Buck recently visited the glider at Pioneer Park Museum and initiated correspondence to learn more about the aircraft. Captain Buck is a pilot who flew for the RAF and British Aerospace and also trained pilots for Australian airlines East West.

"Looking at William Lionel Gibbs' glider I wondered what inspired him to build and fly this aircraft,” explained Dennis Buck. “As he worked his farm he would have heard of the youth of Germany taking to the air in great numbers in primitive gliders. Forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles to have an Air Force, from this nucleus of partly trained glider pilots would grow the mighty Luftwaffe of World War Two.”

If it was this phenomenon of German youth taking flight, then it is ironic that William Lionel Gibbs would be killed over Holland fighting in World War II.

William Lionel Gibbs’ brothers Aswald and Harold assisted in the construction of the glider, which was an undertaking after supper over three years. In an interview in 1991 Aswald would recall the glider was built based on plans in a book titled ‘Primary Glider’.

“The fact that the glider flew would confirm that a set of plans was used otherwise the chance of getting the centre of gravity right would have been pure chance,” agreed Captain Buck.

“The aircraft itself must have been extremely well-made, suggesting William had exceptional woodworking skills. To tow a glider behind a car to launch it would certainly not have been recommended as the forces on the aircraft at even 20km/hr would have been immense.”

Fortunately the structure remained intact and the glider flew. “Had the framework been covered with linen and dope instead of silk and later linen and paint, greater things might well have been achieved,” speculated Captain Buck.

Lionel Gibbs’ diary records a total of 13 minutes airborne achieved over five flights in 1936, reaching an altitude of around 100 feet.

Captain Buck’s interest has been spurred on by questions from a glider pilot and former colleague in the UK, who is keen to know more about the aircraft. “I have a very interested glider pilot in the UK asking questions. I should not have mentioned it to him!”

So far the design of the Gibbs' glider remains a mystery. “There were magazines especially from the USA in the 1930's on how to build and fly a basic glider. It would seem that he considered flying lessons perhaps too expensive and like many glider pilots of that era learned by taking small hops and then mastering turns.”

“One thing that is interesting is that William was not selected for pilot training in the RAF. This would suggest that he had no formal training before attempting to fly.”

When the glider was donated to Pioneer Park Museum in 1972, Harold Gibbs was recorded by The Area News as saying Lionel was a self-taught pilot.

“He was the only glider owner in the district at the time... First he read books on ‘How To Be a Pilot’, then he practised flying by balancing the glider on a roller, in this case a small galvanised iron tank, facing into a sufficiently strong wind to give him soggy control. Then, with the aid of a motor tow, he took to the air.”

It is known that William later flew in a Tiger Moth but by then it would seem the glider made no more flights.

William would later join the RAF but being too old to be a pilot he was selected as an Air Gunner and died in a Lancaster crash while serving with 83 Pathfinder Squadron.

“Now is the time to recognise the Gibbs brothers' achievements by determining the origins of the design of the glider and restoring it to its former glory,“ enthused Dennis Buck.

Councillor Eddy Mardon, Chair of the Pioneer Park Museum Working Group, said Mr Buck’s comments highlight there are many remarkable stories in Griffith’s history and on display at the Museum.

“Exhibits such as the Gibbs Primary Glider contribute to telling the story of pioneering life in the MIA so that future generations can continue to learn about the can-do attitude that can still be seen today,” he said. "It seems incredible that a young man yearning to fly achieved his dream without leaving the family farm."

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