by Rudy Opitz
I've recently had the opportunity to speak with many people, especially journalists, about particular things that have happened in my life. Most of those conversations have centered on my time at Peenemunde flying the Me 163 Komet rocket plane, and I would have to agree that as a test pilot, that was certainly exciting. However, the Komet is far from being the only thing I see when I look back at 89 years of life-most of them spent as a pilot.
What many people don't see is that basically I am, and always have been, a glider pilot. In fact, one of the things I am proudest of is the number of people I have taught to fly gliders. I'm still an active instructor, which means I've been privileged to spend 70 years at the controls of gliders-usually teaching others how to most efficiently cheat gravity.
When I climb into a Schweizer these days, I have to smile when I think back to how it was in 1929, when I first began to fly. In those days, there was no Third Reich; WW I was a distant memory, and no one was thinking of future wars. It was a wonderful time of aerial innocence. In those days, as I sat in my little primary glider--at the end of a bungee cord that was pulled taut--ready for the launch, there was only the challenge of defying gravity for as long as my skills would let me. That was the challenge; to hone our skills and learn what magic the air held that would keep us aloft for increasingly longer times.
Looking back, it seems almost as if my path in life was pre-ordained by the search for increased aerial efficiency. One of the most important crossroads in that path was when I met Professor Alexander Lippisch. I can't tell you exactly what it was that made our relationship so instantly workable, but it had something to do with a shared interest-almost an obsession-to make gliders fly better and longer. One of the highest honors I've ever received was when Lippisch permitted me to build his newest glider design, a 161/2-meter sailplane, for my own personal use. I was the only one allowed to do that. That was in 1934, and I finished it in time to compete in the 1935 national contest, where the prize I won was a gift of power training. Who knows? Had I not won that prize, I might never have gotten a power-plane rating.
I worked for and with Lippisch off and on for over a decade. It was wonderful to see how his mind came up with such innovative aeronautical designs. And often, I got to fly them. Some of his most provocative designs are totally forgotten. For instance, people remember the Komet, but few remember the unique little flying wing, pusher aircraft he designed and built for the private airplane market. Heini Dittmar and I test-flew them. One was the 75hp DFS 39, and the other was the 120hp DFS 40; they were decades ahead of their time. With their highly swept wings with winglets on the tips, they would look modern today. Unfortunately, WW II intervened, and Lippisch became part of a research and development department that, although part of the Messerschmitt Co., was completely separate and autonomous.
As a glider pilot with some test-pilot time in my logbook, I was involved in some really interesting projects: some bizarre, some not. I was, for instance, an instructor in a military school, where I taught soldiers how to fly 10 place gliders. They had flown no other aircraft, but there I was, teaching them in those monstrous machines. And then there was the project in which we tried to find out how short we could make the tow rope. The 150-foot tow ropes we usually used required relatively large fields from which to take off. We started shortening the ropes and eventually had them down to less than 10 feet. We then replaced them with a steel tow bar of the same length. It was interesting to be on tow with the huge rudder of a Junkers ju.52 only 10 feet in front of you.
A word on flying the Komet: to me, it was nothing more than an unbelievable, self-launching glider. As a glider, it had wonderful handling characteristics, and in fact, we often would slip them to a landing.
After the War, I went to Wright-Patterson AFB for 10 years and worked in the Aeronautical Research and Development Center test-flying a wide range of aircraft. I then went to AVCO Lycoming to work in their gas/turbine development program; while there, I primarily flew helicopters. But throughout it all, I kept my hand in gliders. In fact, one of the most interesting periods was when I rebuilt and flew a Horten tailless glider that a GI had brought back from overseas.
Today, as I sit in the back seat of a Schweizer 2-33 with a student in the front, I'm still trying to teach what I've always taught: to show students how to "feel' the airplane and make them understand how important coordination and precision are to the flight. I try to get them to use their understanding and their brains in place of a throttle. As I do this, I feel blessed that I have been given the gift of such a long life in the air. Life itself is wonderful, but to spend it in the air is beyond anything any of us has a right to wish for.
- (Thanks to Roger Post editor of Flight Journal for permission to reprint this article)