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Fred Robinson

Soar With Eagles at Crystal Airport's Great Western Soaring School

Fred Robinson, himself an early Diamond soaring pilot (SSA #80/FAI #547), started Great Western Soaring School and was the first operator of the airport back in 1967. Fred was born in St. Louis in 1929. His family later moved near the Merrimac River south of St. Louis. Fred says, "One day on the river I was rowing a boat that I built myself and a Fleet biplane, towing a glider, passed overhead - I was stunned, and had to find out where it came from, and started to hang out at Starling Airport. My folks were so alarmed at my desire to fly that they moved us away so I wouldn't hang around the airport." At 17 he joined the US Navy. After he was discharged, then 21, he used the GI Bill to finance flying lessons while he worked as a fireman in St. Louis. He first got a Private Pilot's license in power planes because there was no glider operation nearby at that time. Wanting an education he came west because he heard that schools in California were free for residents; he got a job with Northrop Aircraft as a fireman driving a crash truck... While at Northrop Fred attended El Camino Junior College in Torrance. It was about that time that he joined the Southern California Soaring Association and learned to fly sailplanes. He added that rating to his pilot's certificate and went on to get his Commercial and Flight Instructor's rating for gliders and his SSA Diamond badge.

Asked what prompted him to start the Great Western Soaring School, Robinson said, " - we ran a little operation down at Agua Dulce in 1962 - a fellow named Gene Hamm and I - we were both  engineers at Lockheed. Henry Combs flew with us there. Well, the neighbors didn't like us there so I looked for another place to start a glider operation. I knew that Crystal was here but was not being used - so I went to Richard Blalock and asked him if I could rent his airport and start a glider operation. He said '-well you'll have to clean the roots off ' and he let me use a tractor for that - so I got the airport for $50/month for the 1st year. I started with two gliders and a towplane that I picked up in Denver, a little Supercub. By the end of the year I had six gliders. I had changed jobs from Lockheed to a little company, designing valves that went on the Lunar Orbiter. Then the glider business started booming.  I had started it as a weekend operation, but it grew so fast that after a year I quit my job and went full time at Crystal. After the first year, I signed a five year lease and then got it extended again. I got along quite well with Richard Blalock. His son John , who now runs the place, worked as a lineboy for me for a while and his sister Laurie worked in the office."

During these early years from 1967 to about 1975 Great Western Soaring and Fred Robinson trained many of the leading soaring pilots in the United States. Mike Koerner, who holds the American record for straight out distance in a sailplane, 902 miles from California City to Seminole, Texas (without an engine, folks), learned to fly gliders at Crystal as did the entire Koerner family. Mike also was a two term President of the SSA and is still active in the organization.  T. Claude Ryan, the designer of Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis plane, flew with Fred, as did John Northrop.

The school and airport  became a seedbed for other glider sites as well. Don Slotten, a student of Fred's, went on to open Sailplane Enterprises in Hemet, California. Larry Barrett got his Commercial glider license at Crystal and went on to start Skylark in Elsinore, California and when that was flooded out, opened Skylark North at Mountain Valley Airport in Tehachepi, California. Les Horvath flew with Fred and started up Arizona Soaring at Estrella Sailport in Maricopa, Arizona. Jeanie and Joe MacAdam learned to soar with GWSS and started California City Soaring around 1975, succeeded by Caracole Soaring at Cal City which was started by Cindy Brickner and her husband.. Cindy worked for Fred Robinson for a while and even babysat some of Fred's kids while she was at Crystal. Cindy was recently elected  Director of  Region 12 of the SSA.

Although Henry Combs has led most of the informally competitive Crystal Squadron long distance flights, it didn't start that way. Fred, reminiscing, said "I'll tell you how that got started: One day at Crystal it did not look like a good soaring day, and there were a lot of pilots there with their (fiber)glass ships; Graham Thompson was one of them. To get them going I said 'OK I'll give $50 to the guy that makes the longest flight out of here', and so they all started and Graham Thompson made it to Phoenix. At the Gold Badge banquet later I gave him the $50 and he offered to match it for the next guy, and that's how those long flights out of here got started." After Fred moved to Crystal, Henry Combs became the leader of subsequent flights at Crystal, joined by any who wished to meet the challenge. The numbers who have joined and met that challenge are legion. In 1995 a group of them got together and established The Henry Combs Perpetual Trophy to be awarded annually to the person(s) completing the greatest number of straight-out Diamond distance glider flights during the previous year. The trophy has been awarded eight times since it was established, the first time in '95 to Henry for his 11 over-311 mile flights that year. In each of the subsequent years up to 2000 the trophy has been won with, successively: 14, 22, 13, 12, and 13 such flights! And these are just the past trophy winners! As of September 9th 2002 the contenders for the trophy have made 47 more such flights this year from Crystal to such destinations as: Austin, Cedar City, Derby, Gabbs, Fallon, Minden, and Yerington, Nevada; Beaver, Hurricane and Parowan, Utah; and Phoenix, Arizona. The two longest have been made by Mike Koerner: 555 miles to Lakeview, Oregon  and 495 miles to Orovada, Nevada; Bob Maronde flew 449 miles to Winnemucca, Nevada. And all these flights are made with no engine, no fuel - just the natural atmosphere that nature provides.

In 1975 Fred and his family decided to move to Texas. As Fred tells it, "A.C. Williams (Diamond #160, 1970) in Caddo Mills, Texas,  called me and said 'Could you come down and run the glider school for me for a month while Mary and I take a vacation?' and I said sure. So I went there and the next morning after I arrived A.C. said 'I gotta fly up in my Mooney to Schweitzer (sailplane factory in Elmira, New York), would you like to come along?' Of course I went - it turned out it was all set up for me to get a distributorship in Texas for the  west from Mississippi to California for Schweitzer sailplanes." Robinson sold the GWSS to Calage Corporation, a group of his customers and employees.

Following Fred's departure, Crystal Airport experienced five successive operators. Calage gave way in 1979 to Gene Jordan, a DC-10 pilot with Continental Airlines, who was succeeded a few years later by Romas Rakauskas, a Los Angeles contractor, who was followed by John Stevenson. In 1993 George C. Watkins, a retired US Navy Captain and fighter pilot, took over the glider operation and called it Crystal Soaring. Mind you, all of these folks may have initially thought they were in heaven to be able to own a business in which they would get to do what they loved - that is, to fly. It took a special talent to run a successful glider operation, and in 1998 Fred Robinson returned to Crystal.  In his words: "There were 5 owners of this operation while I was gone and I got it back in '98. Well, now we are in the process of re-creating the GWSS; it's a labor of love for me. I don't  intend to ever sell out and retire. When I can't fly anymore, or when I pass on, my living trust is going to pass it on to the employees. "

by Ray Davids

SSA Achievements Page

Posted: 2/24/2009

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