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Munich to Berlin in a Stemme S10 Motorglider

We became the proud new owners of an FAA type certified Stemme S10 Chrysalis motorglider in June, 1992. A strong believer in flight training, I went to Berlin, Germany to receive factory flight training in the new ship and mountain flying training in the Bavarian Alps. The trip turned out to be even more memorable than I had anticipated.

My first day in Berlin, I got checked out on the S10 Chrysalis. We covered normal and abnormal procedures, pilot accessible maintenance items, systems, assembly, ground handling, and a full syllabus of powered and unpowered maneuvers.

Each aircraft design has its own characteristics and it always helps to learn about them from a qualified source. The most notable feature of the Chrysalis is its retractable propeller which disappears completely into the nosecone while soaring. After a few practice operations, it quickly became second nature and I was able to switch between soaring and powered configurations in less than 5 seconds.

I flew for the next two days with Sebastian Loewer, the factory demo pilot in the skies of Berlin becoming more comfortable with the ship and its handling characteristics. Then I was introduced to a Lufthansa 747 captain and part owner of an S10 based at a small airport near Munich, in close proximity to the Alps. He and I set off in the S10 from Berlin to his home airport, a distance of roughly 200 nautical miles.

Our S10 was powered by a 93 hp Limbach four cylinder engine and equipped with the standard fixed pitch propeller. We cruised at 92kts to Munich. (We'll soon be retrofitting the variable pitch propeller our ship which will yield a cruise speed of 121kts.) The factory training had prepared me well for the flying portion of the trip and the ship performed as advertised.

Airspace restrictions were more complicated than I expected. Germany had only recently reunited and the majority of the trip from Berlin to Munich was over former East German territory. The VFR procedures required the avoidance of numerous restricted areas, each with a specific minimum and maximum altitudes. Curiously, many of the altitudes change with the day of the week.

As we sat side by side in the S10's cockpit, my German instructor explained the various rules and soon I was able to make sense of the system. The flight ended easily with a picturesque final glide over rolling green hills and golden church steeples lit by the setting sun.

The flight training in the Alps was even more breathtaking than I anticipated. Soaring among starkly beautiful mountains in a world class 23m sailplane is indescribably scenic. I was thrilled by the performance of the ship. We found and used thermals in the wider valleys. As we dashed along the near vertical westerly faces of cliffs, ridge lift gave us altitude. Above the peaks, we found welcome areas of wave. Certainly a wider variety lift than I usually find at my home base in St. Louis! In addition to shear enjoyment, the experience also offered a wonderful opportunity to recall lessons I learned years before, learn new skills and to better appreciate what I still don't know about mountain flying.

I was surprised to see the popularity of soaring in the Bavarian Alps. If I studied nearly any mountain, I was able to make out one or more sailplanes sharing lift above the peak. At times we soared with another S10 which offered playful competition.

The ski slopes were covered with brightly colored dots which resembled leaf cutter ants. Upon closer inspection, they became visible as hundreds of hang gliders, ultralights and paragliders. Occasionally, one would find enough lift to join us above the peaks. It seemed odd to share a thermal with someone sitting in a canvas seat supported by parachute lines!

At the close of an extraordinary soaring day in the Alps, my gracious hosts walked me through a detailed weather briefing. The news wasn't good: Within 12 hours cloud cover would move in ahead of a cold front with ceilings of 2,000 to 5,000 feet. Once the cold front arrived from the northwest, low IFR due to ceilings and fog would blanket the area and make a timely return in the Stemme S10 impossible. It was nearly irresistible stay longer in the Alps , but doing so would have played havoc with our itinerary which included non-refundable discounted tickets back to St. Louis.

I departed immediately at 4:30pm with an anticipated time enroute of 3+15. Even though the S10 was equipped for night flying, Germany prohibits night flight in an airplane certified as a motorglider. I anticipated landing with 15 minutes to spare before official nightfall.

The dual time received during my flight along the same route from Berlin to Munich a few days earlier proved to be valuable. I could easily interpret the now familiar depiction of restricted airspace. Since it was Thursday, my civilian VFR flight was restricted to flight below 300 meters AGL in certain area, and between 300 and 600 meters at other locations.

The earlier flight had also prepared me to anticipate German or Russian spoken on the airwaves, but no English. The formerly East German controllers had begun learning English, but few were up to speed yet. Since my language training stopped with high school level Spanish, I planned the enroute portion of my flight without access to ATC.

The takeoff was normal: Accelerate to 40kts, lift the tail, accelerate further to about 50kts, then rotate after a total ground roll of about 600 feet. Soon the picturesque German farmland was passing beneath the wings. Years of flying in the IFR system back home made my pilotage skills somewhat rusty so I paid close attention to the terrain. After a short time, the copper clad church steeples marking each village ceased to look the same and the rivers became meaningful landmarks. My route crossed the autobahn a number of times and it was interesting to watch the occasional Porche or BMW passing me in spite of my 95 kt ground speed.

It was thoroughly enjoyable flight. The rolling farmlands slowly passed by less than a 1,000 feet below. The Limbach motor purred along. About two hours into the flight, the effects of the approaching cold front became apparent.

Flashes of direct sunlight through the scattered layer above became less frequent, then ceased all together, shielded by a solid overcast. Visibility was good under the overcast, but isolated rain showers appeared ahead and the air grew increasingly turbulent. Repeated attempts to get updated weather from stations along the way failed due to lack of a common language.

I took stock of my situation. The ceiling and visibility were marginally VFR, and dusk was falling rapidly. The fuel gauges bounced momentarily to the "E" as turbulent air shook the wings. To make matters worse, an organized line of heavy rain now blocked the path to my final destination. Although only 45nm from my intended destination, I decided "enough is enough" and planned a precautionary landing.

The map showed the closest airport to be Altes Laga AFB, but since no tower frequency was indicated, I radioed Tegel airport, a large international airport serving Berlin. The controllers were fluent in English there so it posed no difficulty to explain my situation. "Please standby, we'll call Altes Laga tower and get permission for you to land", the Tegel controller assured me.

Einstein may have predicted time dilation at high speed; I can testify that it also dilates at slow speed under certain circumstances. Circling under a low ceiling with a diminishing fuel supply while awaiting permission to land is one such case. After a few minutes which seemed like eons, the answer came back. "Do NOT land at Altes Laga, it is an active Russian military base! Please acknowledge!" Reluctantly, I acknowledged the instruction and flew on to the next closest airfield, Holtzdorf AFB, to repeat the process.

Circling southwest of the field I could see the nearest end of what looked to be the longest runway on earth. From the air, the huge black runway seemed at least 15,000 feet long, if not actually infinite. Under the circumstances, it was certainly the most inviting runway I'd ever seen.

Night was falling quickly as I circled and circled, waiting for the controllers at Tegel to give me permission to land. As I waited for them to check the conditions at Holtzdorf, I considered my choices. If they did not grant permission to land here, would I honor an instruction to fly on in the dark with low fuel and an impending storm? Or would I go ahead and land on this huge runway anyway? Before I decided, the Tegel answered, "The tower is closed and does not answer the phone. You may land at your own risk." I was overjoyed. I entered the downwind mid-field to avoid the heavier rain east of the field.

Power back to idle... landing gear down... flaps to 16deg.... ignition off... retract the propeller... deploy spoilers on base leg. I established a stable final approach at the recommended 62kt approach speed plus 5kts in view of the light rain over the final approach path. Although it was getting dark, sufficient sunlight remained to make the landing. Touching down midway down the huge runway would provide ample room for the landing roll. Everything looked right. All that remained was to flair the graceful ship and land on the S10's sturdy landing gear.

The runway below looked like an long black rectangle reaching to a vanishing point over the horizon. And then, at fifteen feet above the runway, I experienced the greatest shock of my 20+ year flying career. At first I didn't believe what I saw ahead through the dark, rain streaked canopy. Stretching to infinity, were row upon row of steel spikes reaching upward toward the belly of my plane! The spikes were about three feet high and spaced about five feet apart. The grid pattern stretched across the 200 foot width and as far as I could see down the runway. There was no room to land without disastrous results.

I immediately initiated a go-around. Primary Controls: Fly the Plane! Nose Cone: Forward! Starter: Engage! Ignition: On! Throttle: Advance! Gear Selector: Up! Flaps: 5deg.! Airspeed: Accelerate to 62kts! I can't be sure of the actual elapsed time, but I'm sure it was faster than the normal 5-second transition from gliding to powered flight.

As I flew down the runway, it dawned on me that the phrase "the tower is closed" really meant the "airport is closed". The airport was under construction! Taxiways were torn up. New concrete would soon cover the reinforcing bar "spikes" embedded in a base layer of blacktop.

Fortunately, construction of the runway's west end was further along than the rest of the runway. Four to five hundred feet of fresh white concrete lay at the end. After a careful flyby to confirm the surface condition, I made a short, but otherwise uneventful landing.

Within an hour I was in the office of the base's commanding officer. The Lieutenant Colonel was a career officer in the West German Air Force had assumed responsibility for the base and its 5,500 soldiers only 30 days earlier. We spent the evening discussing Germany's dramatic political and social changes since reunification. We talked late into the night. The colonel's stories of the differences between the East and West German ways of running an airforce base were fascinating. We became fast friends.

Early the next morning, we refueled the plane. The Colonel and his staff waved good-bye as I took off from the partial section of runway. My first solo cross-country flight in the Stemme S10 was an adventure I will never forget!

Posted: 11/18/1995 By: Marc Arnold

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