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Original Issue

The Long Ride Home

Like dragonflies usurping a hornet's nest, the sailplanes took over Stead Air Force Base near Reno last month for the U.S. National Soaring Championships. Sixty-five of them lay beside the jet aprons, where signs still warned, "CAUTION: Keep Clear of Jet Exhaust, Min. Safe Distance 200 Feet." There were no signs to warn the visitors about deserts and angry farmers and hungry cows and quicksand, and there was no need. Sailplane pilots know all about such things as that.

Graceful and perishably beautiful, the sailplanes presented as pretty a sight as can be found in sport, but in competitive soaring beauty is only a pleasant byproduct of efficient design. And as what local newspaperman Mark Twain used to call a Washoe zephyr swept down from the burnt-brown Nevada hills, setting the tightest tied sailplanes to twitching at their moorings, one was reminded how eagerly and well these ships fly. A sailplane is flight stripped to its basic fascination—two wings and a tail, with bare accommodation for one man.

Sailplanes that weigh no more than 600 pounds have soared to 46,000 feet, higher than any Boeing 727. In this national championship one craft would log 456 miles in a day, and another—George Moffat's Austria SH-1—would average 71 miles per hour this very afternoon, including pauses to find lift and circle for altitude.

"Quiet in the hangar, please!" ordered Competitions Director Marshall Claybourn at the opening morning pilots' meeting. "The first day's task is a speed task." Moffat, holder of the international speed records for 100-and 300-kilometer triangles, permitted himself a short smile. "...101 miles to Hawthorne and return on a true course of 139°. Shear should develop at Walker Lake, with isolated cu's south of this line...." Moffat made brisk notes. "The takeoff line closes at 1730, start and finish gates at 2030. The CAP plane will leave the turnpoint at 1900 hours. Towplanes will give the usual signal—rocking of wings and a rattle of the rudder; that's when you drop off. If you come down, have your crew give us exact latitude and longitude."

When the meeting was over, Moffat stood up and placed a big brown Australian station hat on his head. "Shear," he explained on his way to the weather shack for his daily extra pumping of Weatherman John Marsh, "is caused by a convergence of air masses. Where they meet, the air sure as hell can't go down, so it's got to go up—18,000 feet at least." George, who is 39, teaches English literature to prep school boys at the Pingry School in Elizabeth, N.J. Sometimes he talks like an English teacher. Sometimes he doesn't.

"Could you say a word about the anticipated strength of those thermals?" he asked Meteorologist Marsh. "Quite strong," Marsh said. Moffat looked satisfied. Thermals—columns of warm, rising air caused by uneven heating of the earth's surface—are steppingstones in the sky for soarers, whose chief expertise consists of knowing how and when to skip from one to another. Thermals are generally marked by fluffy cumulus clouds—cu's in soaring shorthand—and, along with shears and standing waves in the lee of mountain ranges, provide the levitating force on which sailplane pilots depend. Improvising a course through this visible and invisible geography of the sky while simultaneously maintaining a balance of speed and altitude is the major appeal of soaring.

Any competent soaring pilot can find these things, but only an expert can employ them to full advantage. "There is a strong temptation to go where someone—anyone—is circling, or to work a thermal all the way to the top," says Moffat, who is a precisionist. "It's not how long you use a thermal but how fast you go up that counts. In a really good one, it's possible to climb darn close to as fast as a jet. You should use only about 30% of a mediocre one, then go off and find another.

"It's important, on the other hand, to avoid the thunderstorms into which cu's may develop. Thunderstorms around here are so big that the blowoff—ice crystals blowing off the anvil of the thunderhead—will just shut your lift off. Or one can very easily suck you up beyond your oxygen capability. Ben Greene was lifted at better than a mile a minute once. At that rate you can quickly lose your wings and, very shortly thereafter, yourself."

At the tie-down area Suzanne Moffat, a pretty, spirited girl of 26 who uses the wind as her hairdresser, helped her husband check emergency supplies. They inspected the first-aid kit, concentrated food, flash and flares.

"We're plagued with people who want to emphasize the danger," George said. "Just flying a sailplane around is safer than power flying. One fundamental safety factor is the soft landing. You have marvelous control—anywhere between a 40° approach with full dive breaks to 3° with none. In contest or record flight, of course, you're definitely stretching a little. On a glide you may easily reach 150 mph where the placard speed is listed at 86." Placard speed is that beyond which the manufacturer makes no guarantee that things will not start coming off.

"You just have to plan the landing right the first time," Suzanne advised calmly, helping ground-crew chief Ralph Boehm transfer oxygen to the Austria's small bottles. Everything else was already tucked into the tiny cockpit—charts, cushions, water, dried apricots. There they shared space with a few simple controls—stick, trim tab, rudder pedals, towrope release—and no more gauges than one can find on a car's instrument panel: altimeter, accelerometer, air-speed indicator, oxygen gauge and three variometers to measure lift. Moffat also had a strand of red yarn taped to the canopy to measure yaw. The wing surfaces had been sanded, resanded, washed and polished by diligent Jo-Ann Boehm. "We don't use wax," says Suzanne. "It collects dust."

It was time to wheel the N8708R into the latticework of sailplanes—65 of them, in three interlapped rows—that comprised the flight line. Towplanes picked gliders one by one off the front of the formation. There began the small ritual, the details of which varied only slightly in the 10 days of the Nationals. Suzanne caulked the dive brakes with children's modeling clay while George buckled on his parachute, sandwiched his 6 feet 2 inches into the cockpit, tested his oxygen and sucked experimentally at the water tube. Ralph taped the closed canopy with white plastic tape and gave it one last polishing before hooking up the yellow towline.

Suzanne, who has 160 soaring hours of her own, is entrusted with running the wing—keeping the sailplane's wings level until it has gathered speed—-and she is good at it, maybe because of her knees. She imagines she has knobby ones, a suspicion reinforced by her father, a General Electric physicist who started her soaring at 14. "Good thing, too," he always said. "Gives you better leverage for running the wing."

Airborne a short 100 feet down the runway, the Austria soared above the Cub's slipstream over the far khaki mountains and around a right-hand turn up to the 2,000-foot release point.

After release, Moffat swooped into a populous dry thermal handily located above the base. Such a flock of sailplanes is called, descriptively, a gaggle. From bottom to top, the column was one great helix of soaring planes, white as sea gulls, languid as Cooper hawks. Suzanne and the Boehms watched from the car, tuned to the BEI radio.

"Zero eight Romeo ground," George said now from the radio. "I'm ready to start. You can move out to Yerington."

Yerington, a mining town known as Pizen Switch when the Comstock Lode was young, was 111 road miles away, halfway to the Hawthorne turnpoint by air. Boehm drove out of the air base and turned south on open highway. "What's the speed limit in this state?" he asked. "Reasonable and proper," said Suzanne. "Just shave and look respectable, and you can drive any speed you want."

Boehm wanted to drive fast and did, hitting speeds of 97 with the 28-foot sailplane trailer in tow. At slightly lower speeds he drove while reading, while watching clouds, while standing in an opened door and scanning the sky for planes. Just now he restricted himself to a conservative 85.

"I'm nervous," Suzanne announced, looking skyward. "Not me," said Ralph. "Dad's got everything under control up there. What can we do?" "Nothing," Suzanne admitted, unwrapping an orange lollipop.

Talk turned to assorted perils of soaring. "Paul Bikle [director of the NASA flight research center and a leading soarer] was telling us how he landed in a field, looked up, and here were a whole herd of cattle ambling over," Suzanne recounted gleefully. "You'd expect him to get out and beat them off, but he just ran. 'I'm afraid of cows,' he said."

"Reminds me of the time I found George backed into a corner whipping at them with a branch," Ralph said. "The cows were licking at a wing—they like the dope in the fabric—and their tongues are just like sandpaper. They'll take a wing right off."

Someone recalled how three-time national champion Dick Schreder landed in a nudist colony ("this is funnier if you realize Dick is so pure-minded he won't even drink tea"). These little mishaps occur with some frequency, and there were many in this contest alone. One pilot fell into a Marine mountain-warfare training center, another into the Nevada State Minimum Security Prison. ("I mistook it for a school playground until I saw the gun towers," admitted Irving Taylor. "By then it was too late.") Don Fisher landed on an abandoned stretch of the first transcontinental railroad, close to the site of the Golden Spike and nothing else.

Story time had outlasted the wide, admirably empty desert and lasted into the irrigated outskirts of Yerington. "Did George ever hear any more from that farmer whose alfalfa field he landed in?" asked Jo-Ann. "That little man was hopping up and down." "No," said Suzanne, "and it was oats. I remember, because oats were growing out of the trailer for a year."

"Generally," Jo-Ann explained later, "people will sit you right down at their dinner table. But that man just wasn't going to let George out of his field. George finally showed him a nice gilt-edged insurance card. I guess the man thought he was going to get rich."

More often, J. Q. Public just burbles, "Whatsamatter, sonny, the wind stop?" That line or, "Hey, mister, what's in that funny trailer?" will draw a laugh from the dourest sailplaner.

George, especially economical with words in the air, broke radio silence to report that he had reached the turn-point at Hawthorne and was only 10 miles from Yerington on the return trip. Boehm crept homeward at 60.

"You know what some of that stuff that looks like dry lakes is?" asked Suzanne, nodding toward some inviting landing places. "Quicksand. Isn't that nice?"

The Austria had landed long before the Ford arrived back at Stead—so long before that Moffat had finished first in the 65-plane field. "All gravy," he said, expressionlessly. "I hardly circled at all. The trick is to make up your mind early what a day can give you and then settle for nothing less."

To the other pilots and wives, already lining up chairs along the edge of the hangar's shade to sip cool drinks, Moffat was fastidiously magnanimous. "Just luck," he murmured. "I was the last person to get to the turnpoint before all the lift quit."

"Almost everyone here is somebody you'd like to know better—and I'm picky," said Suzanne, driving to dinner for 10 after drinks and changes at the Moffats' rented apartment. "At home, in Elizabeth, we hardly know a single person, and that is the way we want it. We enjoy each other and don't need anybody else. But this is old home week. I go wild. I'm hoarse from talking."

It was with some regret that everyone drove home from the evening of chatter and banter. George scrutinized a strange-looking set of clouds and sighed. "I'm just sure it'll be a boonies chase tomorrow," he said.

"The second task," said Marshall Claybourn, opening the next morning's meeting, "will be a distance task along a fixed course—139 miles to Winnemucca and return and then along a line through Alturas, Calif." Westerly winds, it seemed, would range up to 35 knots, and thermals would be weaker.

Stuck with a late takeoff, Moffat compensated by finding strong lift and making the most of it: after a rubber-burning ride, his crew had little more than enough time at Lovelock, its standby point, to consume milk shakes and hamburgers. Bucking heavy headwinds ("if you threw a refrigerator into this wind with its doors open, it'd fly downwind," someone groused), return to Stead was slow enough to encourage the crew to pass the time in persiflage.

"I tell you, Ralph," said Suzanne, sobering slightly after one sally, "I would never try to make George choose between me and flying. 'Cause I don't know how it would turn out.

"George met me at an airport and proposed to me at an airport," she said, now wholly serious. "Maybe that has something to do with our sensing in each other that we were sort of loners. I know I am. I never read the news. Couldn't care less. I live in a world of my own. Always have. Zero eight Romeo is cur baby right now, and she's enough. And we just keep a little apartment as a base; we use everywhere as home."

"Ground Romeo," George radioed as the crew approached Stead, "estimating Reno within the hour. Proceed to Doyle." Ground crew proceeded to Doyle (pop. 77), 45 miles northwest of Reno.

After a four-ice-cream-cone wait, ground had worries. It sighted interesting aircraft—a tanker refueling a bomber and three gliders that turned out to have contrails—but it neither saw nor heard Moffat. George, it later developed, had very nearly fallen ignominiously at Stead and then had had to limp all the way to Doyle. In the next 85 miles, through beautiful, deserted Lassen County, he found some of the waves and thermals that are expected where the Sierra flows down to the Great Basin, but only by hopscotching from cloud to cloud, wringing out lift wherever he found it.

Peering at maps, Moffat's crew appraised every scraggy airstrip, tested every infrequent field. Occasional gliders now glinted in the distances; thanks to sheer persistence and to surviving the downs near Stead, where planes had fallen like snowflakes, Moffat was overhauling the leaders. Suzanne threw rocks off runways, clambered over fences, galloped pastorally through thigh-high grass in search of hazards, brushed her hair in unconscious expectation of an imminent landing.

Suddenly, just below Likely, with the moon well risen, George began to get more lift than he could use. "Moon thermals," said Suzanne. Whatever it was, the Austria soared on and on, past Alturas, past Davis Creek, Willow Ranch, New Pine Creek and finally, almost unbelievably, into Oregon, 439 miles from takeoff. The sun had dropped behind the mountains, shadows crept across wide, wild Goose Lake, a note of urgency crept into Suzanne's voice. Finally George yielded. He could no longer see the ground; he would land.

Boehm marked the road, flashing car and trailer lights. Suzanne marked the end of an imaginary strip. Heads craned into the deepening twilight. Abruptly, the hitherto invisible Austria materialized, looking big and black as a bomber, dipping down from dusk into darkness. It circled once, whistling a glider's jet-like whistle, dropped down over a barbed-wire fence, touched, bounced, then skidded and scraped to a stop. George was not yet entirely disengaged from his machine when his wife ran up to wrap her arms around him.

After George had flagged down a bemused motorist to sign his landing card, everybody worked rapidly to disassemble the ship, literally untaping the wings, and stuff it in the trailer. The field's mosquitoes had double rows of teeth.

And then came the long ride home. George, who had been in the air for 10 hours, who had flown 439 difficult miles, who would be at Stead at 8:30 tomorrow morning for another long task, drove all the way. He did not mind, he said. He probably would not have minded even if he had known then that his lead, based on that day's come-from-behind 991 out of a possible 1,000 points and the first of the day before, would slowly dissipate through the last days of the contest, leaving him second place in the Nationals behind Dick Schreder. He was at this moment too happy a man to mind much of anything.

He drove across the moonlit black-and-silver landscape, joking about soaring ("hawks cheat; they flap") and about the scarcity of open service stations ("we can always empty gas-station hoses. Many's the time I got back lo college that way") as long as anyone was awake enough. Then he fell silent, thinking.

At length he spoke again. "I like a life with a lot of margin to it," he said. "And I," said Suzanne sleepily, "love to hear things put right."


Suzanne and George Moffat plot a cross-country course.