South Wellfleet Glider School

In late July 1928, Peter Hesselbach, premier flier of the Darmstadt Academic in Rossiten, Germany, was catapulted up from Corn Hill in Truro in a glider craft just like the one that had recently set a world record for time aloft. Hesselbach stayed up for four hours and five minutes, hanging over Cape Cod Bay, going back and forth over a 19-mile area. When the flight mileage was calculated, it was 120 miles. His flight was far less than the 14-hour-plus world record, but was record-setting for the United States. Before Hesselbach’s flight, Orville Wright held the U.S. record for the nine minutes, 45 seconds he achieved in 1911, in his box-like invention first tested and flown at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The Corn Hill flight was reported on the front page of the Boston Herald.

Hesselbach and two German colleagues had arrived in the U.S. in May. They first tested gliding possibilities over the Palisades on the Hudson River in the spring. Far ahead of any American efforts, the Germans had established two centers of motorless flying.  After World War I, they were limited in aircraft building and turned to the motorless alternative, achieving world records. In the 1920s, interest in soaring increased throughout the U.S. Someone placed a notice in the Barnstable Patriot in 1923, seeking soaring places on the Cape, describing the needed attributes of hills and dunes with onshore uplifting winds.

Hesselbach and  his German associates from Darmstadt were in the U.S. at the invitation of J.C. Penney, Jr., son of the retail giant. Penney wanted to promote the sport of “soaring” in the U.S. and had chosen Corn Hill as a site for a school to teach the sport. Penney had formed The American Motorless Aviation Club to organize his aviation interests.

Penney was 24 years old,and a graduate of Princeton, and one of his associates was W. J. Scripps. Penney was fined for drunkenness and driving under the influence a month later on the Cape. At the end on 1928, he was divorced from a woman he had married while a student – the marriage had lasted only two days in 1924. All of this information must have met with disapproval by the native Cape Codders, as Penney and his wealthy “playboy” friends pursued their interests. One report told of “wealthy summer visitors” motoring to Corm Hill to watch the gliding activities.

I have not found the back story as to how the planning for the school changed from Corn Hill to South Wellfleet, bay side to ocean side, but it did. Herbert Cook, son of E. P. Cook of Wellfleet, rented the site to “a syndicate from Boston” and it was either then or later that the site in South Wellfleet gained the name Dallinger Heights. There is no record of how the name came to be applied to these treeless dunes. Frederick Dallinger was a U.S. Senator from 1926 to 1932, resigning his elected position when President Hoover appointed him a Federal judge. Perhaps this Massachusetts legislator knew the Boston men who funded the Glider School. Today, former Dallinger Heights is the place where the unparalleled Cook’s Camps is located. Herbert Cook’s father, E.P.Cook, is the man who sold the site just to the south to Mr. Marconi when he sought the best place to establish his wireless operation.

Taking off from the dune. David Sexton photo collection

In late July 1929, Boston newspapers reported that the first glider school would be in South Wellfleet. A mess hall, kitchen and store were already built, and hangars were under construction. The students – some 100 were planned – would live  in tents.  The school planned to attract boys who were interested in flying, with motorless flying considered a safe way to learn about operating an airplane. Indeed, the news reported, even a few pilots operating out of the airports in East Boston and Hyannis planned to attend, to hone their flying skills.

The simple gliders were catapulted up and off the sand dune by pulling back an elastic rope hooked onto the glider’s nose. It takes a few crew members to handle the operation, pulling back on the rope and holding the tail in place. Once the signal is given and the glider catapults, the rope unhooks from the nose, and then it’s up to the pilot to operate the glider’s pedals and stick. The pilot’s goal was to stay up, and land the glider at the top of the dune. However, some came to land on the beach. Since the top of the dune is over 100 feet up from the beach where the gliders came to rest, the school used horses to pull the machines back up to the

Horses pull glider back up the dune. David Sexton photo collection.

top of the dune. This method is exactly the same as the method used at the German school – including the horses – reported in an extensive article in The New York Times in March,

1929. The Times was reporting on the accomplishment of Philip Allen of Providence, Rhode Island, a Naval Reserve officer and a Yale graduate, pursuing further engineering studies at M.I.T., the first American to gain the gliding school’s “three gulls” enamel pin.

Pilot sitting up front. David Sexton photo collection.

Like their German counterpart, the school at South Wellfleet also had three enamel buttons to note student accomplishment: One Gull, for those who stayed aloft for five seconds; Two Gulls for those who stayed aloft long enough to do a right and a left bank; and Three Gulls for those who stayed up for five minutes and could perform various maneuvers.

The newspapers kept up regular reports during the summer of 1929. When five gliders arrived in Boston on a ship from Germany, they reported it. When a 15-year-old-boy, Jimmy Stewart, son of a millionaire aviation enthusiast,Cecil Stewart, had a gliding accident at the School, they reported on it.

Over the sand dune. David Sexton photo collection

When hundreds of people drove out to Dallinger Heights to watch the gliders, it was a reportable event.  Mr. E. J. Davis had just opened his new General Store in South Wellfleet, at the corner of LeCount Hollow Road where the visitors to Dallinger Heights would be traveling. He must have enjoyed a successful summer business.

The School opened the following year with plans to train 250 students in ten-day courses. After that, the news reports stopped and so, as it turned out, did the school. The Great Depression had begun. One report alleged that there was local concern that Germans were staying in South Wellfleet but, if there was, this does not appear to be the reason for the school’s demise. Cook’s Camps used some of the school’s materials to build their facility, and this has lasted much longer than the school. David Sexton shared some of the photos he has collected, and I’ve posted them here.

In July 1934, a year after Hitler’s rise to power, the German soaring schools and their

Glider School class. David Sexton collection.

sailplanes were reorganized as part of the Nazi movement, with the “red hooked cross” of Hitler painted on their tails. The New York Times writer asserts that Hitler had the beginnings of an air force in these schools, and that another war would be fought partly in the air. He also wrote of the bond that grows between gliderists, and how that spirit had been harnessed as part of the Nazi movement.


Barnstable Patriot  online  archive:

Newspaper account on line at

The New York Times  Archive

David Sexton .



Family history researcher living in New York City.
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2 Responses to South Wellfleet Glider School

  1. Pingback: Ralph Barnaby and the American Motorless Aviation Corp. | Raul Blacksten's Blog

  2. Pingback: Cook’s Camps in South Wellfleet | South Wellfleet, Massachusetts

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