A Titan of the Thermals
The interwar period saw a complete change in how people viewed aviation; members of the general public aspired to be part of what was once seen as the exclusive territory of the elite or eccentric. The aircraft was seen to have a practicality and mass appeal not perceived prior to the First World War. It was a golden age that saw tremendous development in a wide range of aviation related disciplines.
This period was a true heyday for gliders, particularly in Germany. The conditions of the armistice which formally ended the First World War forbade powered flight in Germany, but made an exemption for soaring activities. Not surprisingly, air minded Germans flocked to the activity in droves and many key developments in glider design were pioneered by German designers in this period. One such designer was Edmund Schneider (1901-1968), whose Grunau Baby design of 1931 was a watershed event that would prove wildly popular worldwide and influence the design of successive generations of sailplanes.
While gliding was immensely popular in the interwar period, it was an expensive pastime in a period where not everyone who wished to get involved had the financial means to do so without great sacrifice. It was also a period of great experimentation and risk, with many gliders being primitive home built types which often only barely if at all met airworthiness standards of the day or were built primarily for high performance competition. For many pilots, whose main desire was simply to fly, a different sort of aircraft was needed.
Seeing the obvious need for affordability, safety and docile handling characteristics; Edmund Schneider set about creating a solution by downsizing and simplifying the design of one of his company’s existing glider types. The resulting aircraft, the Grunau Baby, was an affordable glider which could be build easily from plans and was safe and responsive enough to become the standard training glider for many soaring clubs worldwide during the interwar period. The Baby put emphasis on basic flight training and cross-country flying and struck a balance of price to performance that satisfied soaring clubs around the globe.
A Revolution of Least Risk
Schneider’s company was based in Grunau, today known as Jezow Sudecki, in Poland. Geographically, the region was ideal for soaring and attracted many accomplished glider pilots so Schneider had optimal conditions to perfect his designs and access to experienced pilots to test fly them.
The prototype Baby glider was a modification of Schneider’s existing ESG 31 sailplane, but with a new wing of smaller size and more refined design of elliptical plan form with large ailerons to give greater responsiveness. The Baby inherited the older glider’s deep and narrow fuselage of hexagonal cross section which had already been proven to work well. The Baby I was developed through the winter of 1930 and took to the air for the first time in 1931.
The Baby incorporated a great deal of wood in its design, possessing a wood frame fuselage covered in wood sheeting and the forward sections of the wing and horizontal tail constructed in a similar manner. The use of so much wood assured the aircraft would be of strong construction, affordable and easy to build from plans and local materials. Indeed, the Baby was built in at least 20 countries under license both before and after the Second World War; it could be built either in a factory setting or by private individuals who possessed the skills and means to do so.
The first major revision to the Baby came in 1932 when, as the result of a fatal crash of a different Schneider sailplane design, Schneider ordered extensive revisions to the Baby for safety reasons; these revisions resulted in the Baby II. The addition of air brakes on the wings created the Baby IIb, widely considered the definitive version of the Baby family. The Baby II and IIb were immediately popular on a wide scale and more than 1,000 had been built by the time the Second World War began. The German war effort saw production of the Baby increased tremendously to meet the demand for a basic flight trainer for potential Luftwaffe pilots.
Life After War and Enduring Influence
Unlike the armistice conditions of the First World War, those which formally ended the Second World War made no special exceptions for gliders when forbidding aviation activities in Germany. Edmund Schneider fled from Poland and, after holding a few non aviation related jobs in West Germany, endeavored to move his family abroad.
While he initially considered India, his attention was caught by news of attempts to create organised gliding clubs and build gliders in Australia. After making contact, financial assistance was given for Schneider and his eldest son to travel to Australia to build and advise fledgling Australian companies on how to build gliders.
Schneider spent the 1950s in Australia before returning to Germany in 1960. During his time in Australia, he further refined the Baby to, among other things, include a fully enclosed cockpit. Such refinements created the Baby III and Baby IV.
Many aspects of the Baby set new standards for glider design and helped to define favorable qualities in future generations of sailplanes. Perhaps the most significant lessons taken from the Baby family are to do with fuselage design as they showed how critical it was to reduce the fuselage cross section behind the wing to reduce the effects of airflow turbulence generated by the cockpit area.
Keeping the construction and assembly aspects of the Baby relatively simple also contributed much to the safety of gliders and many of the Baby’s safety aspects have been included and refined in later glider types.
The Baby Today
The total worldwide production of the Baby family is open to conjecture, but most sources put the total between 5,000 and 6,000 aircraft. Given such figures, it’s hardly surprising that several Grunau Babies remain airworthy in the hands of enthusiasts as vintage aircraft. In fact, enough are still airworthy that regular gliding meets of Baby owners can be held.
Jezow Sudecki remains an important hub of gliding activity to the present day and serves as home for The Glider Factory, the descendant company of Edmund Schneider’s pre war operations.
Several Babies are preserved in museums around the world and with several still flying, you probably have a good chance of getting up close to one if you’re in the right place at the right time.
While a bit dated in places, this is a very good site to visit for information related to the Baby’s history, surviving examples and Edmund Schneider himself:
This is the home page of The Glider Factory; here you can find some historical information about the company and also their current activities: