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Original Issue


Whispering across the sky went the first continental sailplane race: from sea to shining sea—in short hops

Picking their way under black thunderheads that shrouded the serrated ridges of the Alleghenies this stormy afternoon were two of the most unlikely athletes of 1972. One of them was Paul Bikle, a bald, avuncular little man of 55, the pocket of his yellow shirt stuffed with cigars, his recently diminished paunch barely supporting the baggiest trousers since burlesque. The other was Wally Scott, the straightest arrow ever to come out of Texas, a spare, weathered, 47-year-old Odessa movie-house operator whose mysterious maxim was "Mojo all the way!" What they were trying to do was fly the mountains that very nearly stopped the U.S. Air Mail before it started, mountains that old propeller pilots still call The Graveyard. They were being very quiet about it, too, and for good reason. Neither one had an engine.

Scott and Bikle (above) were flying machines that used to be called gliders, and they were heading for Frederick, Md. in the climactic last leg of a sporting event as improbable as its participants: the first transcontinental Smirnoff Sailplane Derby. Already strewn about the countryside near Latrobe and Ligonier, Pa. were their four rivals in the six-man race, crack pilots all, who had not found enough rising air currents to soar beyond the foothills.

Scott himself had almost come down at Latrobe. His anxious crew—wife Boots, son Wally Jr. and daughter Dema—were rolling along the old Pennsylvania Turnpike southeast of Pittsburgh when the two-way, line-of-sight radio crackled: "WA to Nan Six. Murky, murky, murky. Don't go past Latrobe." Nan Six—the call signal for the Scott crew—was already past Latrobe by 20 miles. Wally Jr. spun the crew car off the pike at Donegal and hoisted the 30-foot aerial. "Looks like Wally's down," he said, "but we can get a relay from John Ryan [a competitor]. He's still up around Ligonier." Ryan reported that Wally appeared to be sinking.

As the crew raced west again, there was gloom but not despair in the Scott car. Unlike a lot of families, the Scotts think Dad can do anything. "We're First Presbyterians," Boots had said earlier, "and we believe in predestination. I know Wally's gonna win." The sublimity of faith has seldom been so quickly demonstrated. "WA to Nan Six!" the radio snapped. "Mojo! Mojo! Reverse course!" As Nan Six fled east again, another message came from the sky: "I am south of Johnstown—and climbing! Mojo!" All doubt disappeared. From that point on the Scotts knew it would be Mojo all the way, just as it had been across most of the U.S.

If some of the foregoing exchanges seem as hard to comprehend as the sailplane itself (in Odessa, Texas, of all places, a desk clerk had asked nervously: "Is it some kind of a balloon?"), most are easily explained. "WA" is the radio call for Scott's high-performance, German-made AS-W 12 fiber-glass plane. "Nan Six" is the call for his crew, which tries to keep in constant radio touch during a flight. And Mojo? Mojo is the battle cry of Odessa's Permian High School Panthers, and it simply means "go like hell." Mojo, indeed, is how Scott won six of the eight aerial legs of the derby. Oh yes—the sailplane. A sailplane is a highly sophisticated descendant of the older gliders that coasted downhill. The sailplane goes uphill, provided, of course, the pilot can find rising air—an invisible thermal soaring above a hot spot of ground, or wind forced upward by mountain ridges.

The idea of sponsoring a transcontinental sailplane race first germinated in the head of a man named Ben Dunn at Heublein, Inc., makers of Smirnoff vodka, possibly after a long lunch dominated by vodka martinis. The scheme was met with joy by his employers, who have discovered that relatively inexpensive promotions of needy sports are gratefully received by the participants and frequently generate public mention of their product.

The Smirnoffs got hold of Ed Butts, a retired Air Force major who has conducted many soaring meets, and Bikle, who directed development of the X-15, the XB-70 and the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle while head of the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. Any interest? The response left Smirnoff breathless.

Bikle, as captain of the U.S. soaring team, was looking for money to finance the team's participation in the world championships to be held in July in Yugoslavia. Butts agreed to round up some top competitors for the derby. Smirnoff agreed to give the U.S. team $6,000 and to pay each derby contestant $2,000 to defray personal and crew costs.

Butts and the sponsors worked out an itinerary: Los Angeles to Phoenix, 365 air miles: next to Las Cruces, N. Mex., 313; then Odessa, Texas, 266; next Dallas, 319; Tulsa, 250; East St. Louis, Ill., 353; Joliet, Ill., 230; Bryan, Ohio, 190; Akron, Ohio, 163; Latrobe, Pa., 115; Frederick, Md., 123; and Baltimore, 53.

In a world in which the sun always shone, the fields were dry or plowed, cumulus clouds forever ringed the horizon, "dust devils" were always kicking up to show pilots where the updrafts were, and the wind blew neither too hard nor too lightly, all this could be done in 12 days. Even though the course was on the "hot-air line" for May, Smirnoff inserted six rest days to cover tornadoes, acts of God or just plain rain.

Butts wasn't able to recruit all the master soarers in the U.S., but he got most of them. When the contestants assembled May 1 at Whiteman Air Park in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, the few dozen soaring buffs on hand were dizzied by the celebrities and dazzled by their sleek machines. To begin with, there was Bikle himself, a man who soloed in a glider in 1934 and in 1961 pushed a sailplane up the famous Sierra wave to a world altitude record of 46,267 feet. He wore two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants and a few cigars for that climb, and says now: "I could have gone higher but it got kind of cold up there." It was 65° below zero.

Then there was A. J. Smith, the distinguished Detroit architect who looks like an Ivy Leaguer but isn't, a bachelor of 48. Smith won the world championship in Poland in 1968 and is the No. 1 seed on the 1972 U.S. team. He is famous in the sport for another reason—the obedience and craftsmanship he demands of his crews. "The longest list in the world is people who've crowed for A.J. once," says Wylie Mullen, an old friend and colleague. "The shortest is those who've crewed for him twice."

And Walk Scott, of course, the Mojo man, who has won two national championships and until recently shared the world distance record with a flight of 717 miles. Most of the contestants wore Smirnoff hats and red jackets, but not John Ryan, a stocky, 47-year-old Phoenix sailplane dealer with opaque gambler's eyes, who doesn't look like an Ivy Leaguer but is (Deerfield, Dartmouth). Ryan won the national championship in 1962 wearing a pink golf hat given him by his daughter, and has never flown without it since (and never had it laundered, either—"If I ever go down where my crew can't find me, there's a lot of nourishment in that hat," he once remarked).

Adding a touch of extreme youth to the roster was Ross Briegleb, a stripling of 33 who has lived on gliderports ever since he was seven years old. Briegleb won the national championship in 1970, and his crew chief, Jimmy Shultzman, was confident he would win the Smirnoff. "The gutsy guy is gonna win this one," Shultzman said, "and we got the gutsy guy." On their records, the first five had to be considered likely to outrun the sixth contestant, Einar K. Enevoldson, a 39-year-old NASA test pilot. Since 1954 Enevoldson has been flying jets at superspeeds, an occupation which has not given him much time to practice flying sailplanes at 140—or even 75—mph.

Of course, the planes themselves would be a factor. All but one were foreign designs, pencil-slim, burnished, extraordinarily compact. There was a general consensus that Ryan's German Nimbus II was the highest performance vehicle. Scott's AS-W 12, Briegleb's Glasfl√ºgel Kestrel and Enevoldson's Swiss Diamant 18 were rated about on a level. Nobody could estimate the prospects of the Italian Caproni A-21, the relatively chubby side-by-side two-seater A.J. Smith had agreed to fly for AviAmerica, a San Francisco importer. "Ordinarily a two-seater wouldn't have as good a chance as a single," A.J. said. "We'll just have to see." Moreover, Smith had a passenger—Bob Fergus, a friend from Columbus, Ohio, who had flown out in his Lear Jet to provide A.J. "with laughs and ballast." Bikle's plane, a home-built, all-metal adaptation of a Schreder HP-14, was rated about 15% below the foreign birds, even by its owner. But Bikle, whose name rhymes with pickle, was not dismayed. "Wait'll I get some of these guys back East," he said, his blue eyes rolling with anticipation of those scratchy, often weak conditions.

It was getting on toward noon and the sun was baking through the Los Angeles smog. The crews strapped their birdmen into the tiny pilot enclosures—Scott, for example, flies almost supine—and readied their cars, trailers, radios and codes. The latter were supposed to enable a pilot to talk to his crew men without giving away his position. Everyone had one except Scott. "Mojo's our code," said Boots Scott. "I don't figure to have to retrieve Wally. He's gonna wring the last ounce out of it." (In addition to nurturing pilots and planes while they are on the ground, the crew must follow close enough to find a downed glider, disassemble it and trailer it on to the next stop.)

At 12:18 the first competitor, Bikle, was hoisted up and out of sight. At 12:25 the last one Smith—also vanished toward the San Gabriel peaks and ridges. Crew cars, trailers wobbling, pulled out moments later.

For newcomers following the race there was an immediate revelation: soaring isn't sailing, it's driving. Shultzman, a pretty gutsy guy himself, raced through mountain passes and desert wastes at 100 mph. That first day was a "boomer." with both desert and mountains sending up warm air to support the voyagers. A.J. Smith got up to 16,000 feet before he discovered one of his oxygen bottles had not been hooked up (which list, crew?). John Ryan, appropriately, went to Phoenix like a homesick angel, beating Scott by nearly an hour. A crew hurtling through Blythe remembered only one thing—a motel sign reading HOWARD HUGHES MAY HAVE SLEPT HERE. Smith, Bikle and Einar didn't make it. Einar landed near Salome, Ariz., where nobody dances with veils these days, and Bikle folded near Wickenburg. Only A.J., a man who knows how to cut his losses, really picked his spot. "I looked for the bluest pool and biggest bar," he said after setting down at Los Caballeros, a resort on Vulture Mine Road west of Wickenburg.

Next day brought another boomer, with everybody skirting the Superstition Mountains and the Mogollons, then going straight into Las Cruces. The crews had most of the adventures—a little old lady, after studying the big Smirnoff sign on one trailer, asked nervously, "Are you Rooshians?" The codes kept the radio jumping, and everybody suddenly realized that Ryan, with two merry soarers from the Sandwich Islands as crewmen, was communicating in Hawaiian. "Ten Diamond Head Big Island," Nimbus II commanded. Ryan beat Scott into Las Cruces by 10 seconds and it was another pink-hat night.

Then it was Wally Scott's turn to head for home, and on May 3 he took AS-W 12 into Odessa like a bullet to win his first leg. He never lost one after that. Despite the firm belief of most outsiders that Texas produces more hot air than anywhere, it produced none for the Smirnoffs. After a day's layover in Odessa, Butts gave up and the stowed gliders were trailered to Dallas. After three days of rain in Big D, they were trailered to Tulsa. A newspaperman asked a Smirnoff representative: "How can you call it a sailplane race when you keep going by trailer?" A quick thinker, the Smirnoff man said: "Ever hear of a canoe race without portages?"

On Tuesday, May 9, Ed Butts told the pilots: "The goal is East St. Louis. Ely as far as you can and then trailer in. If three of you make 65 miles or over, it will be a contest day." It was a contest day—and the one day that decided the derby. Nobody found much lift in the soft, green hills of the Indian Nation. Ryan came down first, just 50 miles northeast of Tulsa, in a pasture near (but not among) cows. The other planes also dribbled down, but Mojo dribbled farthest—all the way to Joplin. Mo., 95 miles northeast of Tulsa. That meant 1,000 points, and suddenly Wally Scott had a commanding lead of 438 points over John Ryan and more over the rest.

The flights from East St. Louis into Joliet airport and then to Bryan, Ohio were almost sprints. Everybody made it. with Scott first again each time. Smith was met at the Bryan airport by a friend, pretty Sally Hanifin, who had brought down his Cadillac Eldorado from Detroit. The girl, the car and the Caproni were too much for Ross Briegleb. "Hey, A.J., them your wheels?" he demanded. "Yeah—them's my wheels," A.J. replied. "Goddamn," Ross said, "I gotta find me an oil well."

The next day Ross—and all the other disinherited of the earth—got revenge of a sort. On a test hop in the Caproni, A.J. floated gracefully in—and landed with his gear up. The fiber-glass bottom of the sailplane was scraped thin, but tape fixed that. "Will this do you any competitive damage?" Smith was asked. "Only to the laminar flow over my ego," he said.

At this point the Smirnoff suddenly zigged off course to Columbus, Ohio, partly to make up a leg but mostly to accept a party invitation from Bob Fergus. Once again the flight was a zipper. The party was worth the diversion, but by noon on Saturday it was raining. And raining. And raining. On Sunday everybody trailered to Akron-Canton, where it went right on raining. The caravan arrived just in time to see all the restaurants close—at 9 p.m., yet. The bars, of course, had been shut all day. John Ryan walked into a hotel room where three members of the troupe were entertaining a couple of Akron residents. "Is it true the restaurants and bars are all closed?" Ryan asked. "It's always that way on Sunday in Ohio," a local lady replied. "Why don't you burn it down?" Ryan asked darkly, and left.

By Wednesday everybody was ready to burn down Akron and Canton, if only to dry them up. Butts had a proposal: "Are you willing to skip Latrobe and go for Frederick tomorrow?" he asked the pilots. There were a few indrawn breaths. This meant a 240-mile shot across those mountains. In a hangar session before Butts' question, A.J. had reminisced: "I flew down from Elmira to West Virginia once, and the only thing that kept me up the last two hours was sheer fear." Ross Briegleb broke the silence: "I'll go—can't do any worse than crash in the Appalachians." Slowly, all the pilots nodded assent. They had a strong motivation—with skill and good luck, one of them might be able to overtake Mojo Scott, assuming of course that he had bad luck. By now Scott's lead had stretched to 680 points. He had 6,950, with Briegleb second at 6,270, Ryan third at 6,262, Smith fourth at 6,199, Bikle fifth at 6,101 and Enevoldson last at 6,015.

On Thursday, May 18, a day behind Smirnoff's original schedule, the vodka warriors took off after a chilling briefing—"There is heavy ground fog in Pittsburgh. In the west Appalachians the tops are clear; in the east they are obscured." About all any of the pilots could do, Ed Butts said, was "fly over there and eyeball your way through."

Most of them, as noted earlier, didn't make it beyond the lower slopes. Crafty old Paul Bikle, working the ridge lifts around Altoona, got all the way to Everett, Pa., far enough to boost him from fifth to second ("Wait till I get these guys back East!"). But it was Wally Scott—flying through thunderstorms that sent bolts of lightning crashing down to the turnpike—who Mojoed his way past the Alleghenies and into the soft, benign hills of Maryland. He came down at Hagerstown airport a little before 6:30 p.m.—the winner and grand champion. When the Scott crew arrived at 7:10, Boots flew into his arms. A minute or two later she was able to say: "This is one retrieval I don't mind makin'." Smirnoff, or maybe Wally, had left her breathless, too.

But the final note of class was given the transcontinental Smirnoff Sailplane Derby by A.J. Smith. When the Caproni sank near Ligonier, A.J. unerringly maneuvered it onto a green meadow flanking a castle of a house. A half hour later he was inside eating duck in black-cherry sauce with one of the heirs to the Mellon fortune.