Gibbs Primary Glider

One of the surprising things about working in a museum is the amount that can be learned from the audience.

An example is the Gibbs Primary Glider, which a visiting curator suggested is a significant part of NSW aviation history.

The glider was built between 1932 and 1936 by William Lionel Gibbs with the assistance of his brother Aswald Gibbs and younger brother Harold, who held the lantern as they worked on it at night after their evening meal.

It took three years to build and all the pieces are handcrafted. No parts were bought, although a tradesman may have assisted. They followed plans from a book and were unable to obtain wheels.

Lionel became a self-taught pilot. He read books on the subject and then 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.

The glider was hauled into the air by a 500ft rope attached to a new 1936 Chevy utility on the Gibbs family farm at ‘Willow Bend’ northeast of Griffith. The overall flight attempts saw the glider remain airborne for approximately 13 minutes.

“We built it, crashed it and rebuilt it again,” said Aswald in an interview during 2006. “We really had so much fun with it.”

To modern eyes it looks highly dangerous with open cockpit and no seatbelt. Yet these primary gliders were considered among the safest aircraft of the period.

Initially the glider wings were covered in silk. Lionel made five successful flights in the glider, reaching a height of 400 feet. In his diary summary Lionel noted that “she takes some handling, but seems to stand a lot of abuse. Stops very dead and noses down quite a bit.”

Harold said in an article from 1971 that the sixth was a disaster when Lionel landed in boggy ground and flipped over.

The notes in the file say "In the process, Lionel learnt a great deal about flying."
When he finally got the opportunity to have flying lessons in a Tiger Moth that visited Griffith in 1937, the pilot initially dismissed Lionel's gliding experience as useless. He was then surprised at Lionel's skill, and Lionel for his part thought the Tiger Moth "much more sensitive to the controls and you have the engine to iron out the mistakes on landing although I forgot it." He told the pilot if he really wanted to fly he should try a glider!

Eventually Lionel became frustrated by the problem caused by the glider's two different wing coverings. He slit the crook covering, intending to replace it when he could get the right material, and hung the glider up in the shed. It remained there until the family donated it to Pioneer Park Museum in the 1970s.
William Lionel Gibbs went on to join the RAAF at 30 years of age. Because of his age he was relegated out of pilot training and became an Air Gunner/Wireless Operator. He would rise through the ranks to become a Pilot Officer in March 1943.

It's interesting that there seems to be a discrepancy in the cause of Lionel's death during World War II.

An article from 1971 says "He then joined No.83 Pathfinder Squadron RAF with which he completed three tours before being shot down and killed over Holland on the last sortie of his final tour in 1943 before being posted back to Australia."

The Gibbs Primary Glider can be seen in the Collection Management Facility at Griffith Pioneer Park Museum.