Flying high

The Jonkers team, with Uys upfront and Attie and Johan Bosman

The recent victory for Jonker Sailplanes at the World Championships is a feather in the cap for South African ingenuity and science. Dr Attie Jonker, along with his brother Uys and Dr Johan Bosman, is the pioneer behind Jonker sailplanes. His path to success began with a childhood dream, to create the best sailplane in the world. The recent victory of the JS-1, the company’s flagship sailplane at the World Championships, has seen that dream become a reality.

Jonker credits the start of his journey to his father’s enthusiasm for sailplanes. “I’m a firm believer that most people more or less do what their dads do. My dad was a teacher at school, and he was in gliding before I was born. He didn’t have any money to buy his own glider, so he built his own glider in the garage. So I grew up in an environment where I saw how a glider was built from scratch, this leaves an impression and you as you are pre-programmed to think that that is what normal people do.”

Not resting on his laurels, Jonker understood immediately the importance that an education would have in shaping not only his future, but also that of Jonker Sailplanes. “I knew early on in my life I needed to end up at a university, because that’s where the research and development takes place. That’s where I decided I needed an engineering education to do this properly, as its more than drawing lines on a page. I decided, in 1986, to build the best glider in the world and every decision I made after that, including where I was going to study, was aligned with this goal”.

His university of choice was North-Western University in Potchefstroom, where he achieved his Phd in Mechanical engineering for his thesis on performance enhancing elements for an 18-metre glider. Now a senior lecturer at the university in the school of mechanical and nuclear engineering, Jonker is acutely aware of the importance NWU has played in the progression of Jonker sailplanes. “Being at university you learn how sourcing funds work and how to get the correct people around you, getting the research and development going, and align all those things so it is possible to pull something off. There are a lot of small stones you have to step on. And if there is one missing the whole thing is going to collapse”.

NWU has also been incredibly important in terms of research and development for Jonker Sailplanes, something which Jonker believes sets their products apart.

 “Building a glider seems such a simple thing, but you need to develop three  technologies to the state of the art that aerodynamics, you need to understand it. We set up the business in 2006 but there was a long time spent in the research and development phase, as well as looking at engineering problems and building new technology. Coming out of university we didn’t have a lot of experience so the best course of action was to research properly and thoroughly and the physics and the equations will guide you to the right answer. Every little problem we dived in deeply and tried to get the optimum solution,” Jonker told Leadership.

Consequently, Jonker Sailplanes have used careful and considered research to achieve great success with their own unique brand of gliders, and the larger factories all over the world have started to take notice. “We were able to come in with this glider and immediately have the best glider in the world. It was an eye opener for the German factories who’s been doing this for nearly 100 years.”

Jonker was referring to the JS-1, Jonker Sailplanes flagship model. The glider was extremely successful in the recent World Championships held in Britain where the 21 metre JS-1C took home the top three places. What makes this achievement so remarkable is the fact that all the research and development came from South African shores, a real feather in the cap for South African science and technology. As a pilot, Jonker himself is no stranger to success, taking home consecutive first places in the South African Nationals from 2006 to 2008. Yet even he did not expect such global success so quickly.

Speaking also on behalf of his partners, his brother Uys and colleague Dr Bosman, Jonker puts it down to a distinctive South African mentality, a “hard-headedness” that makes responding to challenges to exciting. “Nobody from our factory believed we could build something so successful so quickly. We went to the German factories 15 years ago and we said we wanted to build another glider. They said come and look at our factories, you can look at everything because we know you won’t be able to do it, it’s too difficult. That was a bit of challenge, to step up and prove them wrong. This is something I’ve seen it in many cases, this South African hard-headedness. If they tell us we can’t do something then we really excel and get it right. So I’m very impressed with South African mindset and what we can create. I think we don’t stand back for anybody in the world.”

It’s this mindset that has helped Jonker Sailplanes become a growing force in the Sailplane industry.  “I often say to the guys at my company, you’re not just going to win them with engineering, you’re going to be better and quicker bringing your products to the market.” The trio and their team have already begun planning for the next World Championships in 2016. It’s this aggressive approach to want to continually better one’s own performances that has become synonymous with their company.

Jonker has spoken in the past that South Africa is in a commercial war with other countries, a war in which Jonker Sailplanes are more than holding their own. “Information is so freely available. Boundaries have dropped away with regards to where you can buy stuff. You can look all over the world and buy what you want from whoever you want. And that allows us to get into the global market with this glider and means we can compete head to head with other glider manufacturers.”

Presently, Jonker Sailplanes are competing with two major glider manufacturers in Germany. “We are really head to head with them because every glider that someone buys from us is one glider not being brought from one of the other guys. And being such a relatively small market and a very specialized market it’s really like that. If we sell our gliders they don’t, they sell one less. So we are really head to head in a commercial war and we are not at war with weapons, but rather with technology”.

Even with the current globalized market, the success of Jonker Sailplanes lies in the fact that they keep their research and development very much in-house. In many respects Attie Jonker has stayed true to the familial links from which his company started. His brother, Uys, is a partner, as is Dr Johan Bosman - a former masters student of his. Surrounding himself with familiar faces has been invaluable according to Jonker. “I had the idea and I had the vision and the drive, but it’s a lot of work and you can’t do that on your own so you need people around you that you know. And I was quite lucky in the beginning that my first masters student was Johan Bosman and he’s now my colleague and my partner in the company. He played a vital role in the aerodynamic design and his masters project was the development of the wing of the JS1 glider which is now being built, designed and used.”

The strong ties between Jonker Sailplanes and North-West University extends beyond Dr Jonker’s position as full-time lecturer and may yet have far greater consequences for the fostering of South African ingenuity in the future. “Many students come to work at the factory during the holidays. They are final year project students, masters students and PHD students - so there is a lot of technology involved with the project, and the research that goes hand-in-hand with this, fits the university like a glove - and is also beneficial to our company.”

With this model the company not only benefits from the fresh young minds of NWU’s finest, but is also giving many students an invaluable opportunity to gain experiences that may very well one day lead to a plethora of science and engineering innovations sprouting from South African shores. It has also ensured that their research and development is kept very much in-house. Whereas a lot of the other glider factories have had to outsource their engineering, going to universities or other companies to help them with designs, Jonker Sailplanes do all their research themselves, which has led to several innovations, as Jonker explains.

“For example, the air-force on the wings. We put a lot of effort in. Initially it took us three years to figure out how to design air-force properly. And that is sort of regarded in the aviation industry as black magic, how to design air-force. We’ve got that technology down to a fine art and can do it easily, for us its nothing to design air-force. But for other guys, it’s a little bit difficult.”

“Another simple thing we focussed on was cockpit ventilation and the way in which to let air out of the cockpit. None of the other glider manufacturers have given thought to the fact that the air that must exit the cockpit, must exit properly. So we’ve developed an extractor system, where the air exits the aircraft at the most appropriate point, with the least impact on the aircraft. And that was beautifully done, so now our aircrafts are well ventilated, they’re not too hot, and do not have a big a drag penalty like most other systems. It’s also important, otherwise the pilot ‘fries’ in there. It is small things like that which make a difference. It doesn’t seem like an important aspect, and if you add that and lots of little small things you get a great product.”

Furthermore, Jonker says they are producing easy-to-handle gliders that are yielding great results. “We develop our gliders for handling and for ease of flying. Our gliders are now the easiest gliders to fly, but they still have a great high performance. Normally these things were mutually exclusive; you either got high performance with bad handling or vice versa. We were able to marry those two. We were also a bit lucky there, because we did a couple of things to enhance that.”

Such innovations have not gone unnoticed and Jonker Sailplanes were recently awarded for the contributions to SETI through research leading to innovation in small and medium enterprises. Dr Jonker believes the scope for further development is growing. “We’re aiming towards becoming the market leader. We want to sets the rules instead of following them.”

For all his engineering prowess, Jonker is unashamed to admit that he is a relative novice in terms of people management. “You get taught at university how to get technical solutions; they don’t teach you anything about leadership in business or working with people or people skills! For us that was probably one of the more difficult things to figure out. How to work with your people and how to manage the business, to the point where we had a professional guy coming in this year to teach us how to run a business, how to work with the people and to teach us the proper way to work with people.”

Even in the midst of such great success Jonker remains humble and easily acknowledges his shortcomings. “Initially I thought the factory and tools were our most valuable assets. And then I’ve learnt that the people - guys on the floor - are our most valuable assets. Those are the guys that really make a thing like this work. Our factory is very labour intensive. So those guys from the floor who do the actual work, the actual manufacturing of the glider, those are the guys that need to be supported from the start.”

In many respects, the success of Jonker Sailplanes is a victory not only for South African ingenuity, but also for those hoping to follow their dreams. Dr Attie Jonker remains as enthusiastic about his gliders today as he did as a young boy watching his father fly them. “Sometimes you get too close to a project you know, so day to day you work hard and eventually it becomes a job, a really tough job. But every so often you have to force yourself to stand back and say; ‘Wow, this is really cool!’ What we’ve set out to achieve we have achieved. But as they say, if your hobby becomes your job, you lose your hobby.”

Did you know?

  • The father of flight, Sir George Cayley's gliders achieved brief wing-borne hops from around the middle of the 19th century. Towards the end of the century, the German pioneer of aviation, later known as the Glider King, Otto Lilienthal built gliders using weight shift for control. In the early 20th century the Wright Brothers built gliders using movable surfaces for control – they successfully added an engine in 1903.
  • After World War I gliders were built for sporting purposes in Germany and in the United States. Germany's strong links to gliding were to a large degree due to post-WWI regulations forbidding the construction and flight of motorised planes in Germany, so the country's aircraft enthusiasts often turned to gliders and were actively encouraged by the German government, particularly at flying sites suited to gliding flight like the Wasserkuppe.
  • The sporting use of gliders rapidly evolved in the 1930s and is now the main application. As their performance improved, gliders began to be used for cross-country flying and now regularly fly hundreds or even thousands of kilometres in a day if the weather is suitable.
  • The early gliders were made mainly of wood with metal fastenings, stays and control cables. Later fuselages made of fabric-covered steel tube were married to wood and fabric wings for lightness and strength. New materials such as carbon fibre, fibre glass and Kevlar have since been used with computer-aided design to increase performance.
  • The first glider to use glass-fibre extensively was the Akaflieg Stuttgart FS-24 Phönix which first flew in 1957. This material is still used because of its high strength to weight ratio and its ability to give a smooth exterior finish to reduce drag.
  • Fibreglass gliders are white in color after manufacture. Since fibreglass resin softens at high temperatures, white is used almost universally to reduce temperature rise due to solar heating. Color is not used except for a few small bright patches on the wing tips; these patches (typically bright red) improve gliders' visibility to other aircraft while in flight (and are a requirement for mountain flying in France). Non-fibreglass gliders (those made of aluminium and wood) are not subject to the temperature-weakening problem of fibreglass, and can be painted any color at the owner's choosing; they are often quite brightly painted.
  • Gliders use the same control surfaces (movable sections of the wing and tail) that are found on conventional planes to control the direction of flight. The ailerons and elevator are controlled using a single control stick between the pilot's legs. The rudder, as in conventional aircraft, is controlled using foot pedals.
  • The aspect ratio of a wing is the wingspan squared divided by the area of the wing. The glider has a much larger aspect ratio than a conventional plane.


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