Skip to main content
Original Issue


High among the hawks over Texas, the world's finest sailplane pilots wafted from thermal to thermal in pursuit of two championships—but a bearded German outflew them all

Pecos Bill was right on: everything in West Texas can bite. Not just the sudden rattlesnakes and those acrobatic tarantulas; not merely multifanged cactus and wild white roses that will rip an arm to the bone. Even the sky can bite in West Texas. It was the first lesson learned by the cosmopolitan participants in the world soaring championship—gliders, folks—which swooped to a finish last week in Marfa.

Take the skybite case of Walter Neubert, open class sailplane ace of the West German team and an early-form favorite to take the championship back home to the land where competitive gliding first started to soar. Here is Walter, skipping along from cloud to cloud on the second day of the meet. He's admiring the dihedral of a few nearby turkey vultures when—hupla!—the sky opens its mouth and swallows him into a spike-lined valley. Walter climbs out of his white Kestrel 22 and surveys the scene. Not a cumulus cloud within range. No radio contact with his crewmen, who are out there somewhere among the cacti in the pursuit car. Weaving his way through the rattlers, Walter comes upon a hog farm and—Gott sei dank!—it has a telephone. But nobody is home. Unfortunately, Walter is the world's only shy German and he doesn't go in. Instead, he spends the night back in the cockpit. As a result, he accumulates a scant 14 points of his possible 1,000 and, despite two first-place finishes later in the meet, he cannot close the gap with the leaders. Jawohl, mein Kind, skybite can hurt.

When the two-week meet came to an end, it was a brace of unskybitten schoolteachers who walked away with the laurels. The open class championship went to America's George Moffat, 43, a lean, reticent English teacher from the Pingry School in Elizabeth, N.J. (SI, Aug. 1, 1966). Moffat seems to take the Romantic poets literally. Thinking like a thermal, he wandered lonely as a cloud over the plains around Marfa to ring up 8,323 of a possible 9,000 points. (Each day the class winner takes 1,000 points, with the runners-up getting proportionately fewer.) In the standard class—where wing-spans are limited to 49 feet versus the unlimited spans of the open class, which includes Moffat's one-of-a-kind 72.5-foot Nimbus—victory went to West Germany's Helmut Reichmann, another pedagogue, who was given the nickname of Red Baron. He actually outflew Moffat, scoring 8,663 points in a field where the competition was deeper, if not faster, than among the "big boys." And at the age of 28, Reichmann became the youngest aviator ever to win a world soaring championship. Thanks to the Red Baron, the Germans—who placed second in the open class and added a fifth place behind Reichmann in the standard—regained the unofficial team championship that they had relinquished to the Poles and the Americans.

But points and championships are only the grossest guidelines to what competitive soaring is all about. In more ways than one, atmosphere is the name of the game, and Marfa, Texas gave world class competition a whole new perspective. Of the 11 world championships flown since 1937, this was the first to take place in the United States. Usually the biennial event is held closer to civilization—on broad, eastern European grass plains such as the one at Leszno, Poland in 1968, or in the shadow of picturesque and precious mountain ranges like the Alps. By contrast, Marfa is Meansville—not because of the people, who except for the traffic cops are uniformly courteous, interested and helpful. They even cleared all their old beer cans off the adjacent highways before the international guest list arrived. No, sir, Marfa is mean by way of environment. This is the Big Bend country of Texas, and Marfa (pop. 2,799) sits on a high, semiarid plateau 4,688 feet above sea level. Sun that can leech a man to jerky in the course of a clear afternoon lies pitiless on the fiats and sends the surrounding mountains into giddy heat-wave gyrations by 10 in the morning. One of those peaks, known locally as the Widow's Tit, would have done justice to a tassel-twirling stripper.

Or course, it is precisely that fierce sun and those sere, baking-pan plains that make Marfa one of the best soaring grounds in the world. Only South Africa and Australia consistently produce better thermals, those columns of hot air that rise from bright, sun-heated surfaces to form cumulus clouds. The CUs, as soarers call them, are the visual keys to the sport: a good pilot hops from one tall thermal to the next, alternately trading off altitude for horizontal speed and then speed for altitude in his cross-country jaunts. As if to confirm the virtues of Marfa as a soaring center, the buzzards and hawks of the region seem to fly higher and longer than anywhere else. One American ace, Wally Scott of Odessa, Texas, noted: "I spotted a hawk at 8,000 feet the other day, just amblin' around up there, no way he was going to swoop on any jackrabbit from that altitude. Shucks, he just loves soarin' like we do."

If soaring itself puts a man in closer touch with nature, simply being on the ground—either watching or crewing—can put him even closer in Marfa. Apart from the ubiquitous snakes, spiders (both tarantula and brown recluse, among the real baddies) and scorpions, there are mule deer, whitetails and antelope in the surrounding plains and hills, plus the odd cougar. This is primarily cattle country, and the folks themselves have that natural look.

So, Marfa is not Poland or Austria or even Elmira, N.Y., and the competitors from 25 countries who gathered there quickly turned on to the atmosphere. Middle European esthetes found themselves eating earth-baked calf's head and swinging lariats at the nearby ranches. Italian Team Manager Piero Morelli got nipped by a brown recluse—that noxious, nocturnal arachnid that has recently spread into the Southwest from its Middle Western range. Fortunately, Morelli consulted the Australian team manager, a physician, before they had to amputate. "The members of my team believe that the recluse can kill a child," Morelli commented in the meet's elegantly written daily bulletin. "But they also are sure, however, that if it bites a team manager, the recluse immediately dies."

The focal point of the meet was Presidio County Airport, 10 miles outside of Marfa. A World War II bomber training base, it provided few amenities but compensated with some beautiful natural touches. Whole squadrons of barn swallows live in the hangar, and their frisky flight, gentle chirping and not-infrequent bombing runs livened up even the dullest of "rest" days. The soaring people livened it further with pranks and punning. Bent or broken gliders—and there were many—were promptly hauled to the "Wreckreation Room," while the placard above the shed where Finland's crew hung out was quickly amended to read "FINNISHed Team." Probably by some Swede.

But there was tension to balance the frivolity—particularly among the topflight contenders. George Moffat, hardly a gagster under any circumstances, whitened under his tan before each tow, while his wife, Suzanne—a cheerful chick as sleek as any glider—solemnly flagged off well-wishers until the meet was over. Oddly enough, the West Germans, who can be distressingly humorless if you put them in anything mechanized such as a sports car or a Messerschmitt, were perhaps the jolliest of the top contestants. They had reason to be. Most of the really hot ships—from Moffat's victorious Nimbus to the Kestrels, Cirruses, ASW12s and LS-1s—were of German manufacture, and certainly the spirit was there. It wasn't the spirit of Richthofen, however, but rather that of Ernst Udet, the literate and gentlemanly World War I ace who later wrote beautiful books about flight, or of Wolfgang Langewiesche, another ethereal wordman and aviator of those old days.

On the last day of competition, with standard class flier Reichmann nearly 500 points ahead of his nearest challengers, the skilled and feared Poles, Jan Wroblewski and Franciszek Kepka, the Germans were just a touch uptight. "He's got to finish to win it," says Reichmann's crew driver, Hannes Linke, as the Red Baron closes his plexiglass cockpit. "If he should fall one foot short of the finish line, we may be kaput." Linke is a husky young pilot who spends his non-soaring time as a factory foreman in Los Angeles.

Reichmann seems calm behind the glass, a nascent brownish-red beard giving him a raffish look that complements his yellow, coyotelike eyes. When not aloft on the thermals, Helmut teaches art, biology and sports in Esslingen, a town near Stuttgart. Married and the father of an infant daughter (whose recent arrival prevented Helmut's wife, Burghild, from accompanying him to Marfa), Reichmann is single-mindedly devoted to excellence in soaring (though he paints betimes). Just before the tow rope tightens he flashes Linke a thumbs-up sign, probably unaware that Spitfire pilots originated it.

As Reichmann spirals upward on the prestart thermals, Linke and his crew roar out of the airport in their green Buick, towing the ship's trailer behind. The car is chockablock with radio gear, charts, rulers, empty beer and cola cans, old sausage wrappers, binoculars and the prettiest girl in West German aviation. Brigitte Holighaus, blondish, bikinied wife of the aeronautical engineer. Klaus Holighaus, who designed Moffat's victorious Nimbus, is riding shotgun for Linke. The other crew member is Walter Schneider, a rotund, potato-nosed Santa Claus of a man who also is a preeminent designer: Schneider is the "S" in the LS-1 that Reichmann is piloting to victory.

The day's task is a speed triangle, or three-legged race, of 239 miles, and its first leg runs 70-odd miles northwest to a town called Van Horn. It provides a good checkout of communications and code. Linke has numbered each 10-kilometer segment of the route, so that eavesdropping competitors will not know where his eagle is soaring. Nearing Van Horn, Linke gets worried. "Es ist ziemlich blau bei 25," he flashes Reichmann. Then he translates: "It's a bit blue near Van Horn—empty of clouds, which means very little lift. Blau also means 'drunk' in German, which reminds me. We've got to get some champagne for when Helmut lands."

The car slows as it passes Miller's Dineateria on the outskirts of Van Horn. "Got to watch out for the Man," says Linke, whose English is hip despite the fact that he arrived in the U.S. only seven years ago. "Highway patrol has busted too many of us so far. I guess these small towns make their living that way part of the time." Refueling in town, Linke speeds eastward on the second leg while Reichmann orbits for altitude over Van Horn in a gaggle of gliders. (Gaggle is the official term.) A pause along the road to search for Helmut visually: Linke steadies his glasses on the trailer's frame. This is no easy accomplishment, as the lovely Brigitte is wriggling around in excitement, shaking the trailer. Reichmann acquired, the car speeds on. Fast, widely divided, four-lane highway, but Linke is holding himself back—only about 85 or 90 in the clear.

At the town of Toyah, just short of Pecos, which is the second turning point in the triangle, he cuts right onto a farm road. "Shortcut," he explains. "Helmut is moving very fast. We may not get back before him." With the fear of a radar trap gone, Linke becomes his floorboarding self. The scenery speeds up: fields of beans and wheat, sunflowers and cane, doves on the wing and tractors mounted with parasols. Dust devils punctuate the long horizons with wiggly streaks of pale tan. "You get a good little lift from a dust devil," Linke muses as the Buick bends through a corner. "Sometimes you need it, if you've lost the CUs."

Back on the main road, Linke climbs into the Davis Mountains, racing to stay ahead of Reichmann. Saragosa, a town that has yet to meet affluence, winks by—broken adobe walls, a tacky church, a cafe called Little Mexico now abandoned and boarded up. Linke has lost Reichmann on the radio—atmospherics?—but finally Helmut comes through loud and clear. He is in a new gaggle of 30 sailplanes over the Pecos turn. The crew laughs—their pilot has become popular. Then Reichmann is out and moving fast toward home. Linke pushes the Buick to the red line. The heat has dried everyone out, and the welcome plink of beer-can lids fills the car. The crew munches on Peg Leg spiced sausages—"Just like the Landj√§ger back home," says Brigitte—as the scenery flashes past. Now it is high country: cottonwoods, willows, a yellow-flowered yuccalike plant that ought to be growing on the moons of Jupiter. Crumbling red cliffs, goggle-eyed beef cattle, a swirl of buzzards, a sign announcing the imminence of Barry Scobee Mountain. Then back into the flats, with Reichmann overtaking fast and the champagne still unbought, uncooled. Lollipop windmills on the horizon—Marfa's just ahead.

Linke whips car and trailer up to the Big Bend Package Store, sprints inside, emerges instantly, bottle flailing, like a character in a Chaplin movie. "Open the trunk," he yells as he runs. The icebox is in there. Kersplash! Thump! And off again. Just as the Buick enters the airport—500 wild passing situations and a thousand heart stoppages from the start—Reichmann's ship dive-bombs the finish gate. "Verflucht noch einmal!" sighs Linke, grinning.

To see a world class sailplane finish is to understand the absurdity of terrestrial life. The craft slopes out of the sky with the easy grace of a falling star, trailing a curved rainbow of ballast water—a shower cooler than silk when it hits the crowd watching on the runway. Then, pulling up from a 150-mph glide, the plane spills its speed and sweeps to a dead quiet two-point landing. That's just how the Red Baron did it.

Reichmann was waiting at the end of the runway when the pursuit car panted to a stop. He was grinning from ear to ear, grinning so wide that the bristles of his new beard stood out like a mad dog's ruff. "Weltmeister!" yelled Linke as he popped the champagne cork. "World champion!" Reichmann took a long, long hit on the bottle, then another. Finally he let out a war whoop that could have roused the Comanche nation, to say nothing of the southern Cheyenne and the Apaches. The older soaring enthusiasts looked on in moderate embarrassment. After all, this is the silent sport. Still, a man should be entitled, if he can avoid skybite.


Back on the ground, pedagogues Reichmann and Moffat talk over their airy victories.


Lazing along under friendly cumulus clouds, a sailplane cuts a quiet pattern over an arid but perfect competition site—the West Texas plains.


Gathered around their craft on the ground, the visitors soon discovered what every Texan knows—that everything in the Big Bend country bites.


Descriptively named peak was a landmark.