Helmut (Helli) Lasch
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About Helmut (Helli) Lasch
Helli Lasch was an industrial tycoon.
Helli was born in Germany in 1912, into a family that had ran a large and successful machine tool manufacturing business. He was a gifted skier (when skiing as a sport was in its infancy) and an excellent player of both golf and tennis. He came to South Africa in 1932 to gain some experience before joining the family firm, but having met and married Orcillia and with impending war in Europe, he stayed and started his own business.
Helli started gliding in 1947, taking a course at Belpmoos (Bern), Switzerland and going solo on the fifth day in a Grunau Baby. Sixteen days later he had completed his Silver C flying a DFS Meise and a Spalinger S.18. Inspired, he flew in the (South African) National Gliding Rallies in January 1948 and December 1948, winning the second event in a Minimoa flying about 200km each day. The rally report stated that Helli’s progress was ‘phenomenal’.
Helli’s writing style epitomised his character: a log book entry on April 1948 notes that “Released cable at 15m by mistake, hard landing, light damage to plane”. In fact Helli had released the winch cable instead of dropping the undercarriage dolly of the S.18, stalled in and both wings sheared at the roots.
In February 1950 Helli captured the South African altitude record climbing to 23,500ft. “The lift was incredibly smooth inside the cloud and as confirmed by the barograph after the flight, I must have had lift up to 20-25 m/s. I was perturbed to find that it was difficult to move the stick, which indicated heavy icing. The ASI had become unserviceable and the din caused by the hail became so great that I could no longer judge the airspeed.” And a few days later Helli set a new South African distance and goal record with a 444km flight from Johannesburg to Estcourt. (Maybe it was this flight that triggered his dream to fly to Durban as after that he kept bathing trunks in his cockpit…)
Helli flew in the World Gliding Championships in 1950 at Örebro in Sweden – with his Air 100 cockpit lined with cheetah skin – and at one point flying over unlandable terrain, he said he was so low that “he could see the famous Swedish trolls”. Helli also flew in the World Gliding Championships in 1952 at Quatros Vientos near Madrid in Spain, and the 1954 World Gliding Championships at Camphill – or ‘Damphill’ – in the UK.
Then in 1962 came a turning point. While on a business trip to Berlin, Helli took an opportunity to look at the SB6 of Akaflieg Braunschweig and he met Björn Stender, the man behind the SB6. Helli and Björn spent a day sketching a radically new glider and Helli agreed to finance the whole project.
The BS-1 was an 18m glider with full span ailerons and flap, composite construction and a sleek fuselage. It first flew in 1962 and was a design so modern that it would not appear unusual in the 21st century. (Remarkably, the D-36 designed by the legendary team of Friess, Lemke, Waibel, and Holighaus only flew in 1964, two years later.)
With a minimum sink of 0.5 m/s and a best glide of 1:45, the performance of the BS-1 was world class; in 1967 Alfred Rohm flew a BS-1 in West Germany to achieve a world record for 300km of 135.3kph, and in 1971 Terry Thys, a Californian pilot, flew 917km. Helli’s BS-1 was a 1962 Christmas present.
Sadly Björn Stender died in 1963 while test flying the second BS-1, when the glider broke up at high speed due to flutter and his parachute failed to open.
While Helli revelled flying his BS-1 and flew more than 120 hours in ‘Orcillia’, this came to an abrupt end in 1967. Approaching an airfield at high speed, he heard “small noises like a rat gnawing at some timber and I see my right wing folding back like a jack-knife.” Helli bailed out but the glider disintegrated in the air and as Helli wrote at the time, “what’s even worse, I cannot find my left shoe anymore! I found my glasses; they passed me by when I was hanging on the parachute.”
Orcillia ordered an H-301 Libelle to replace the BS-1. At Helli’s request Porsche supplied Glasflügel with the leather for the cockpit, so that it matched the latest in Helli’s taste for sports cars. In 1982 Helli acquired a DG400 – in which he died on approach to land at Parys.
Helli preferred flying long distances and he liked to be the ‘lonely eagle’. Rather than ‘goldfish bowl flying’, he set targets that stretched both man and machine. He was successful in everything he turned his hand to, with a style that combined eccentricity, determination and discipline. In contrast to his highly competitive nature, he was not a hard man. But most special, Helli treated everyone as an individual. Described as a modern day Hero, Helli was a legend.
In 1968 one of Helli’s three daughters, Orcillia (Strilli) married Nicky Oppenheimer. Nicky has remained an aviation enthusiast – a few years ago he took delivery of an Agusta AW139 helicopter in Italy and was one of the flight crew for the ferry down through Africa to Cape Town. The 2001 World Gliding Championships in Mafikeng were actively supported by the Oppenheimer family, keen to promote gliding in South Africa. The WGC2001 was possibly one of the best championships in recent history and showed the gliding world that South Africa had some spectacular soaring conditions. This became the catalyst to create the Helli Lasch Challenge.
First held in 2003 and every two years since, Nicky and Strilli have hosted the Helli Lasch Challenge at Tswalu Kalahari reserve. The objectives of the Challenge are:
- A living memorial to Helli Lasch
- To foster international relations
- To promote South Africa as a gliding destination
- To develop the competition skills of the South African gliding team
The Challenge is an exclusive, invitation-only, all-expenses-paid event where the current World Champions in the Open, 18m, 15m and Standard Classes are invited (with their partners) for two weeks to the Tswalu Kalahari game reserve. Uniquely the Helli Lasch Challenge combines staying at one of the finest game lodges in Africa with some of the finest soaring in the world.
Outside the period of the Challenge, Tswalu Airfield is solely used to ferry visitors from Jo’burg or Cape Town to the reserve, so for the Challenge lots of special arrangements are made: the sailplanes for the World Champions are ferried to Tswalu, a tug plane is also ferried in, Avgas fuel has to be organised, the runway lighting posts are removed to avoid potential incidents.
Members of the current South African team squad are also privileged to attend for a week, where they benefit from competition training with a former World Champion. The current World Champions also share their knowledge and expertise with the South African pilots to help develop the competition skills of the South African squad.
The 5th Helli Lasch Challenge June 18, 2011By Iain Baker
Michael Sommer has said that the prospect of being invited to the Helli Lasch Challenge was one of the main reasons for winning the World Gliding Championships again.