Ralph Stanton Barnaby was a multi-talented and multi-faceted personality. He was a pioneer glider pilot, naval aviator, author and lecturer, historian, artist and sculptor, "raconteur extraordinaire", musician, and one of the founding fathers of the Soaring Society of America (SSA). He was SSA President on three different occasions, was Director a number of times, and held many other SSA positions during his lifetime -- the last being as Honorary Vice President.
Among his many responsibilities for SSA, in 1950 he was Team Captain at the First International Soaring Competition in Sweden. His last SSA contribution was developing the SSA Awards Manual. His numerable $100 "SSA Life Memberships" during 1934 through 1939 helped keep the SSA solvent. He was honorary Vice president of the National Soaring Museum (NSM) from 1973 until his death in 1986. He endowed the Barnaby Archivist Chair at the NSM and upon his death, his will established a generous endowment. There is no question that as diversified as his interests were, his most rewarding activities involved gliding, the SSA and the NSM.
In 1909, at 16 years of age, Ralph designed, built and flew a "hang-type" glider in Roxbury, CT at the summer home his family visited. The glider design was based on Otto Lilienthal's pictures and plans. Although Ralph later became an authority on the Wright Brothers, their concepts were not popularly known at this time. There is a plaque in Roxbury commemorating his first flight; or as Ralph once said, "Throwing myself off the backyard hill."
Ralph resigned as Assistant Chief Engineer of the Standard Aero Corp., Plainfield NY, in 1917 to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps. The story goes that he was under weight and height limits and couldn't read 20/20, so he was shown the door. Since he had also sent in an application to the Army Air Corps, he was back home and hoped that the Army wouldn't be so particular. Two weeks later he received a letter notifying him that his "request for waiver for his physical defects: had been approved, and he was to report to the Medical Officer. When asked what his medical defects were, he claimed "I'm sure I don't knows;" whereupon the Medical Officer said there was no need to reexamine him since whatever they were they'd been waived. So he was sworn in to the Navy and told to go home to await orders. His orders came, sending him to MIT for ground school. Several months later he received a reply from the Army Aviation Corps directing him to report for a physical. It gave him great pleasure to inform then that it was too late. HE WAS IN THE NAVY!!! However, he spent the WW I years as a naval aircraft inspector, rather than as a naval aviator.
He was Project Engineer at the Philadelphia Naval Aircraft Factory in 1920. There he became associated with Lieutenant Leroy Grumman, later founder of the Grumman Aircraft Corp. and Barnaby's first Navy power flying instructor. That same year Lt. Barnaby transferred to the Regular Navy. His Philadelphia projects included:
Lt. Barnaby made his qualifying flight for the United States Soaring Certificate #1 on August 18, 1929 at South Wellfleet, Cape Cod, MA. The flight, in a Prufling glider, lasted 15 minutes and 6 seconds and broke Orville Wright's record of 9 minutes and 11 seconds. The certificate is singed by Orville Wright.
Barnaby was deeply involved in U.S. aviation from the very earliest days. For example:
The National Soaring Museum annually sponsors the prestigious Ralph S. Barnaby Lecture at different parts of the country to honor this man. The first lecture (1973) in Philadelphia was given by Ralph. He related his famous "Two-horsepower Glider Launch" story which occurred during the glider activities on Cape Cod. The story goes that after a day of gliding, the two horses hitched to the ends of the glider launching shock cord were coming closer and closer together. In Barnaby's words, "it became evident to some of us...that the horses weren't far enough apart to let the glider go between them. "Once you get the cords stretched, there's no stopping. So, everyone started screaming when the glider started to move. The glider hold-back was let go. The boys riding the horses looked back and there was this glider bearing down on them. They both dove off the horses into the sane and the glider went sailing through, between and just high enough to clip each horse on the back of the head. I will say this for the young lady pilot, she was unperturbed and landed the glider with no great difficulty. But the two horses ran off in opposite directions, stretching the shock cord between them. The further they went, the slower they were going.... Finally it got to a point where they were just pawing the ground and not going anywhere. At this point the shock cord broke. Have you ever seen a horse turn somersaults? Two of them going end over end! Finally, they got up, shook themselves off, and lit out. That was the end of operations because it took the rest of the day to find them."
Among Ralph Barnaby's awards and honors are:
--Text adapted, with thanks to Shirley Sliwa of the National Soaring Museum, from her biographical article.