Sunday, the fifth contest day, started with a pilots' briefing at 9:30 a.m. The day's task was a speed run to Oberlin. Kans., 33� miles south, and back. The thermometer was on its way to 108�, which should have produced fine thermals, but there was a temperature inversion at 6,500 feet that kept the skies clear and weakened the lift considerably. A nice day for a power pilot, with little turbulence. In fact, this was the condition more often than not throughout the meet, which meant that the planes with the lightest wing loadings and lowest sink ratios, such as the German Ka-6s, which are noted for staying up on a puff of cigarette smoke, made out very well indeed. I was told that the sort of weather prevailing at McCook during the meet brings in an appreciable element of luck, since the thermals which do exist are not capped by the usual telltale cumulus puffs. The result is that even before they have released themselves from the tow-plane the lift-hungry pilots start anxiously scanning the sky, and when they spot a buzzard, a hawk or another sailplane spiraling happily upward, they converge upon him like charter fishing boats when a colleague has made a strike.
On this blistering Sunday there was a thermal rising from the shiny, white, concrete airport ramp, and at one time I counted 15 planes chasing each other's tails in a cylindrical formation that couldn't have been more than 300 feet in diameter and 200 feet in height. The lowest craft was perhaps 1,200 feet high. It was one of the most beautiful and graceful sights I've ever seen, marred only by wonder that they didn't collide, since their wings were almost overlapping. The only rule in this intensely competitive game of thermal-swiping seems to be that everybody has to circle in the same direction as the guy who found it first. (On the following Wednesday a pair of wings finally did overlap, in the only accident of the meet. John Bierens, of Dearborn, Mich. sliced four feet from the left wing tip of a Skylark 4, flown by Gileo Gianelloni of New York City, with the leading edge of his Ka-6's right wing while they were "thermaling" in a tight right-hand spiral at 4,000 feet above the ground. Both landed safely.)
I spent some time on the starting ramp for Sunday's event, staying under the meager shade of the contestants' wings as much as possible. Keeping the pilots cool while they waited in their tiny cockpits under the blazing sun was a real problem for the crews. Here and there a devoted wife would hold an umbrella over her tiger with one hand and feed him iced tea with the other. The tight-fitting plexiglass canopies, which are aerodynamic necessities, were kept off until the last possible moment before launch, then quickly clapped on and their edges sealed with plastic tape for the last bit of smoothness. Of course, the temperature inside would skyrocket instantly, and during the few seconds before his speed would get up and his ventilators would start working you could see the flush start climbing a pilot's neck and face like fluid in a thermometer. I saw several take off with plastic tubes, leading to various coolants stashed around the cockpit, firmly clenched between their teeth as if they meant to keep them there for the duration.
Eventually I found myself taking shelter under the wing of N6390X, a lovely Sisu-1A. Seven of these expensive, elegant, little sailplanes have been built by Arlington Aircraft of Greenville, S.C. Six were at the meet, and they are considered the highest-performance production soaring planes in the world. Standing beside this aerial dreamboat was an even prettier woman, tenderly wrapping a cold, wet towel around the head and jowls of her husband, Gleb Derujinsky, a New York fashion photographer. (That gives a hint of the broad spectrum of people addicted to soaring. The six members of the Nebraska Soaring Association, which hosted this meet, are Leonard Boyd, a plumbing and heating contractor; Don Morgan, a physician; Bruce Snyder, an orthodontist; Milt Johnson, a railroad engineer; John Herrmann, a mortician; and John Altberg, a pharmacist.)
Farewell, up and away
"By, by, dear," said Ruth Derujinsky, clapping a sombrero over Gleb's towel-swathed head and setting the canopy in place to be secured by Harvey Greele, their crew chief, and Peter Van Dyk Berg, a teen-age friend of the Derujinskys, who had come along from the East with a friend, Rick Calhoun, to work in the crew. Rick had disappeared in the direction of the soft-drink stand, and I took his place. We waited until Gleb had completed his launch and made his official start by passing through the timing "gate," a sort of imaginary but strictly observed rectangle almost a mile wide and 3,000 feet high (I had learned that the higher you pass through the better your start will be), then we all piled into the chase car with a radio antenna sticking out of the roof, a tub of iced pop and beer in the trunk and the empty 28-foot trailer behind, and roared off in a cloud of sand for the main highway to the south. Gleb's objective was to fly directly to Oberlin, doing whatever circling and thermaling was necessary to stay aloft, and return to the base in as little time as possible. If he should have to come down en route, our objective was to pick him up.
"The ideal recovery," said Harvey Greele, who was driving, "is to know your man and his plane so well that when the last puff of lift has expired and he has to set it down in somebody's south 40, he finds you there waiting for him."
With four dozen planes in the air, all on one VHF channel, the chatter was constant and sometimes hilarious. Also, it could be deceptive. Like sailing, it attracts highly skilled and competitive people, and soarers, like sailors, are as cutthroat underway as they are clubby ashore. Rule: never believe what comes over a rival's radio. The man nipping at your heels might sadly tell his crew to get ready to pick him up at such-and-such an intersection. You relax, and after a while he shoots past 2,000 feet above, nose down and headed for the finish line. Only the ground crews themselves seem to know when their own pilots are serious and when they're hollering wolf.
"I'm three miles south of McCook right over the highway. Good strong lift here, fellas," one pilot called. Sardonic chortles were heard over the radio.
"That means we'll pass him in a hay-field," Ruth predicted, and sure enough, we did.