A dying student gliding club
One plane, two senior members
In a long, flat field where you’d normally expect to see cows chewing the cud, twenty-three glider planes are surrounded by approximately one hundred gliding fans. The birds are waiting to be towed into the air, often accompanied by a happy ‘whoop!’ from the pilots.
Henri van Balen, who studied law at the RUG many moons ago, is plodding across Zweefvliegcentrum Noordkop’s airfield in Wieringermeer. He kind of looks like the Dutch prince, Bernhard, with his pilot glasses, freckles, and perfect diction. He’s accompanied by Henk Stokhorst, who studied at the RUG in the eighties. They’re the only two surviving members of the once flourishing Groninger Studenten Aeroclub (GSA).
Although to be fair, they’re actually only former members of the GSA. The GSA, which was founded in 1975, doesn’t have any active members at the moment. But that might just change this weekend because an aspiring member is coming by to check things out.
When Stokhorst joined the GSA in the eighties, it was much more popular – in part because students received plenty of money from the government and could take their sweet time graduating. ‘We had forty or fifty regular fliers and a couple of other members who would fly every once in a while’, says Van Balen.
It was a time of adventures and camaraderie. Every week, GSA would go to the German area of Surwold. ‘We couldn’t get our own airfield in the Netherlands’, Van Balen recalls. ‘We went to Surwold the first time to have a look at their field and someone from their board told us they had an instructor who had been involved in the bombing of Rotterdam. A man named Klaassens. To make up for it, they decided to allow us to use their field.’
During its heyday, the club often organised gliding events in France. ‘That brought in a lot of money’, says Van Balen. The gliding conditions in France were more exciting and challenging than in the Netherlands. ‘It’s really difficult to indicate the best thermals on maps of the Alps.’
There’s almost nothing left. They have no airfield, no winch, and only a single plane
It all changed around the year 2000. One of GSA’s members started their own club and took the winch, a motorised cable used to tow the airplanes into the air, with him. This meant GSA could no longer organise its own events. Members kept leaving the club.
Now there’s almost nothing left: no airfield, no winch, only a single plane that sports the RUG logo and the number 395, from the anniversary celebrations ten years ago. Van Balen and Stokhorst are forced to join other clubs’ events; today they’re visiting the Vereniging Historische Zweefvliegtuigen.
If the aspiring member actually joins, they’ll have three members. But how can they make sure GSA soars again? ‘Henk is part of a boyscout club, so we’re hoping he’ll be able to recruit people there’, says Van Balen. ‘My youngest daughter flies, and my eldest grandson loves it. But he’s only eight, so he’ll have to wait another seven years.’
Van Balen is no longer actively connected to the university, and as a lawyer, he doesn’t have much free time, so recruiting new members is difficult. But he served as club president for two years and was very passionate when he was still an active member. It’s time for fresh blood. ‘The younger generation will have to take over.’
But that doesn’t mean the senior members won’t help out once in a while. ‘We could come over on the weekends to fly and give out instructions’, Van Balen grins. ‘I’d love it if we got more members.’
Climbing and descending feels like being on a rollercoaster; it’s fast and sudden. But up in the air, all you feel is the sun, the wind, and the plane. Van Balen hums a cheerful tune, occasionally explaining something about the equipment, the thermals, and the environment. He’s clearly in his element up here. ‘I love the freedom, the view of the landscape’, he says.
What’s less pleasant is when the plane suddenly hits a warm updraft and is yanked upwards, or when Van Balen makes a sudden turn. It kinds of feels like he takes a speed bump or a turn too quickly. Van Balen’s son-in-law, who gets car sick, decided to stay on the ground.
‘It’s not as bad when you’re the one flying the plane’, says Stokhorst. ‘You learn to read the air. Like a ship’s captain who can read the waves and anticipate them.’ Van Balen’s daughter does join him for a flight. Fifteen minutes later – the thermals weren’t at their best – she’s back on the ground with a big grin on her face. ‘It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been up there. It’s great.’
When the thermals are good, you can fly for hours. ‘My longest flight lasted eleven hours’, says Van Balen. ‘I also held the record for gliding in the south of France once. I managed to climb really high because of the landscape there. It’s amazing to see giant commercial aircraft below you. I’d never seen that from a gliding plane before.’