Wally Kahn: Record-breaking glider pilot who helped turn his pursuit into a competitive sport and a popular leisure activity

 

Friday 08 May 2015 19:00
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Kahn: he continued gliding into his 70s, only giving up after heart surgery
Kahn: he continued gliding into his 70s, only giving up after heart surgery

Wally Kahn was a record-breaking glider pilot who helped build gliding into a popular recreational activity and a competitive air sport in the postwar years. He broke seven UK gliding records – for altitude, distance and speed – and competed in many international championships, but his proudest achievement was saving the Lasham airfield in Hampshire, formerly a wartime RAF base.

He thereby secured the future of the Lasham Gliding Society (LGS), the world’s biggest gliding club. He set up the Lasham Trust in 1983, raising enough funds for the LGS to buy the airfield and surrounding 504-acre area outright in 1999 from the Ministry of Defence.

Kahn served in the RAF during the last year of the Second World War, although mostly assigned to desk work. After the war he became a pilot in the RAF Volunteer Reserve, later moving on to public relations work and retiring in 1960 as a Flight-Lieutenant with the Air Efficiency Award (AE).

He believed he had been a glider pilot longer than anyone on the planet: he held the ultimate Senior C badge from the International Gliding Commission and over the best part of 70 years said he had only two non-gliding holidays, of one week each.

Walter Anselm Henry Kahn was born in Mannheim, south-west Germany in 1926. His Jewish parents had watched Ludwigshafen, on the other bank of the Rhine, pounded by French bombers on 27 May 1915, the first strategic allied aerial bombardment of a civilian settlement, prompted by German air raids on south-east England. His parents survived but in 1933 fled the Nazis, taking their seven-year-old son, Walter, to London.

Soon nicknamed Wally, he attended Highgate School in north London, where one of his pals and classmates was the Berlin-born Gerard Hoffnung, later to become a renowned artist, musician and cartoonist. When the government commandeered the school for defence use, the pupils were evacuated to Westward Ho! in Devon. They returned to Highgate in 1943 but within a few months a German V-1 Doodlebug flying bomb exploded in a field next to the school. Fortunately, the only casualty was the cricket scoreboard.

Having gained British citizenship and a London accent, Kahn enlisted in the RAF in February 1944, when he was 17. With the Luftwaffe threat diminishing, he started off as a clerk. He also studied aeronautical engineering at the Northampton Polytechnic Institute, on Northampton Square, London, which suffered severe bomb damage. Known for its wartime training courses for the RAF, Army and Navy, it later became the City University.

In 1946 Kahn was sent by the RAF to the base at Oerlinghausen Airfield near Bielefeld in Germany, where the Nazis had used gliders to train their pilots before the war (the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, after the Great War, had banned Germany from having a powered air force).

At Oerlinghausen he rescued 40 German gliders before the Americans could destroy them and made his first solo flight in a glider. The German airfield is now one of the world’s biggest gliding centres and is also home to motor planes, microlights and hot air balloons.

Kahn joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1949 as a cadet pilot and was commissioned Pilot Officer in 1950. He married Margaret Moore in 1954. After working in public relations for the RAF, he retired as a Flight-Lieutenant in 1960. He was awarded an MBE in 2011 for services to gliding.

During the 1950s and ’60s he broke seven British gliding records and competed in UK and international championships until 1973. He broke one record by gliding 222km from Lasham to RAF Coningsby, Lincolnshire, in a German DFS Weihe aircraft. Along with John Williamson, he broke the two-seater record by flying 312 km from RAF Odiham, Hampshire, to Perranporth, Cornwall, in a Slingsby Type 55 Regal Eagle. He also made 11,000 powered flights as a “tuggie” (tug pilot), towing gliders into the air, often more dangerous than gliding itself since a too-high glider can force the tug into a vertical dive.

Away from the air, Kahn joined his family’s cigar importing business, possibly the first to bring pure Havana cigars to the UK, and after it merged with Joseph Samuel & Son Limited, he rose to become managing director. He was a past Master (1974-75) of the Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers and Tobacco Blenders in the City of London, a body whose origins go back 400 years. He was forced to give up gliding at the age of 74 following open heart surgery.

In 1998 he published his autobiography, A Glider Pilot Bold, the title taken from a poem and song. In the book he cites the wife of a fellow pilot as saying: “Wally was brilliant at pouring oil on troubled waters ... and then setting light to it.”

PHIL DAVISON

Walter Anselm Henry Kahn, glider pilot and cigar importer; born Mannheim, Germany 24 May 1926; married 1954 Margaret Moore (one daughter); died 15 March 2015.

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