History of a man and his glider

By The Mini Bribie Islander - Gloss magazine

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Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes. 

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Tags: Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes.

In The Air

with BERT PERSSON

When I mentioned Garrett Russel’s 1959 Chilton Olympia glider in the very first of the ‘In the Air” series, I was completely unaware that three months further on, I would be writing about a man who flew that glider in the National Gliding Championships at Gawler in South Australia fifty years earlier but, this article is in fact about that man.

Featured image(above): The beautifully maintained self-launching glider

Record-breaking glider pilot and aircraft engineer Bert Persson grew up in Swedish Lappland, an area that is commonly known to many as the home of the midnight sun and the Northern Lights and Bert explained that in the summer months, there was very little dark at night. ‘Where I lived with my parents was on the Arctic Circle and although summer was mostly always light, in the winter I left for school in the dark and came home in the dark,’ said Bert.

‘We did not have a vehicle and I travelled to and from school on skis,’ he said. On leaving school, Bert began work in the tool room of a large manufacturing plant where he enjoyed learning many engineering skills and, once he had been working for a while, he began gliding lessons in the summer of 1956. ‘The air force was keen to sponsor young people who wanted to learn gliding and they also paid one half the cost of a two-seat glider for clubs. This really helped the clubs to get going,’ Bert told me.

Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes. 

Record-breaking glider pilot, Bert Persson

‘They had found that anyone who could fly a glider had much less chance of failing their flying courses,’ he added. In the same year, Bert also became licensed to fly powered aircraft. One day at his place of employment, Bert witnessed an old man being given a gold watch and the cost of a taxi home as a reward for fifty years of service, Bert realised that he wanted much more from life than that. He then proceeded to sell everything that he owned in order to fund his airfare to Australia and, after a journey that took him from Sweden to England, the United States, Fiji and then Australia, he finally arrived in Sydney where he found work at a BMC automobile factory.

Bert found this work repetitive and boring and before long, he had successfully applied for a position that involved maintaining the fleet of a large Alice Springs transport company. ‘They got me to spend three days at their Sydney depot to make sure that I could do the job and then flew me up to Alice Springs. I didn’t know what had hit me when they opened the door of the plane on arrival,’ Bert told me.

‘It was forty-something degrees and when you have spent most of your life in Sweden, that comes as quite a shock,’ he pointed out. He said that he quickly became used to the climate and enjoyed his position in charge of the maintenance of ten trucks and a lot of trailers. Bert also discovered that there was a local gliding club and soon went there to do some flying.

Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes. 

The flight from Romania to Australia was a pioneering event

‘They sent me on a few check flights to make sure that I could fly and they were only just high enough to do a circuit and land,’ said Bert. ‘On the third one when we were on the downwind leg, the glider came across a thermal and I had to battle the instructor so I could take advantage of the situation.

That ended up with us getting up to five thousand feet and staying up for about an hour and it was during this time that I realised the instructor had never been in a thermal,’ he said. Now accepted as a competent glider pilot, Bert pioneered cross-country gliding in the area and, as he tells it, he also began to break records left, right and centre. Some of these were for absolute altitude, height gain and for overall distance flown. He said that some of these are still current and others have been broken.

It was at the time when Bert was due to go on holidays that the local club had made arrangements to purchase a single seat glider from South Australia and, being keen to assist, Bert offered to bring it back on his return to Alice Springs. The glider had been built by Kevin Sedgeman in Gawler and I made arrangements to go there to pick it up. It came with a trailer,’ explained Bert. ‘When I got there, Kevin asked me if I wanted to stay and compete in the National Championships that were about to begin so I flew the Chilton Olympia in the event.

I could not believe it when Caboolture Gliding Club member Garrett Russell brought it to Caboolture many years later,’ he said. After some time with the transport company, Bert went to work for South Australian Air Taxis and whilst there, gained his qualifications as an aircraft engineer. From Alice Springs, Bert moved to Tocumwal and continued to amaze the gliding world with his ability to set records.

Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes. 

Acknowledging one of Bert’s achievements

He mentioned that at one time a girl that was a very good glider pilot who he knew from Sweden came for a visit and they flew every chance they had, breaking more records along the way. He told me that this great young aviator was involved in a serious crash after her return to Sweden and suffered massive injuries that she has never recovered from. One of Bert’s many notable achievements was when he, friend and aircraft sales agent Bill Riley and William Schoon travelled to Romania to pick up three motor gliders and fly them back to Australia.

This 22,000-kilometre flight from Brasov in Romania to Tocumwal in Australia which took 154 flying hours is recognised as a pioneering event in the world of gliding. Bert relocated from Tocumwal to the Redcliffe Peninsula in the 1980’s and still enjoys the serenity of the Scarborough environment today. When he first moved to the area, he had his Cessna 150 hangared at the Redcliffe Airfield but, after an invitation by then Caboolture Aero Club President Garry Poole, he moved it to Caboolture.

Gliders. Aviation. History. Aeroplanes. 

Bert’s records are also recognised by his home country of Sweden

At that time, Bert used to travel back to Alice Springs to carry out the required maintenance for the gliding club and he told me about what happened when he left the keys of the Cessna with a friend in Caboolture. “I told him that if anybody wanted to buy it, let them. I said that the price was $25,000,’ Bert told me. ‘When I got back, my Cessna had been sold to someone in Tasmania.

It was in absolutely top condition and they had bought it far too cheaply,’ he said sadly. Not wanting to be without an aircraft, Bert found a Wittman Tailwind for sale and bought it on the spot. He told me that this was a really quick plane and he often flew it when he went to places like Mangalore. ‘I could leave Caboolture in the morning and be in Mangalore in time for a counter lunch,’ he said.

Bert now has his own hangar at the Caboolture Airfield and kept sheltered within is his beautiful single seat self-launching glider which he bought new eleven years ago. This lovely little aircraft has a retractable forty horsepower engine that enables the pilot to launch unassisted and climb to an altitude where thermals can be found. Bert said that the two-stroke engine only uses a couple of litres of fuel each flight and, once he has reached the desired altitude, he retracts the engine back inside the glider’s fuselage.

Bert told me that he normally gets to fly his glider once each fortnight and that his skills as an engineer are always in demand when aircraft owners require repairs. For as long as this series of articles about the people and planes that take to the air for pleasure continues, I very much doubt that I will ever be able to tell a more interesting story than the one about Bert Persson.

Thanks for allowing me to do this article, Bert.

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