Ours is the only real form of sporting aviation in the world today," calmly states a brochure of The Soaring Society of America, Inc. Members of the Society point out that soaring is to powered flight what sailing is to motorboating, the difference being between outsmarting the elements—using their own strength against them in a sort of meteorological jujitsu—and simply battering your way through them in a welter of exhaust fumes.
"If you want more vivid symbolism," says Richard Miller, a West Coast sailplane addict whose friend and fellow Californian, Paul Bikle, holds the world's soaring altitude record of 46,267 feet, "you could say it is the difference between winning over a dame with delicate flattery or with a sock full of sand."
Hoping to learn more about all this, I set out on a recent Friday in my vintage Bonanza, which develops 225 raging hp on takeoff and perhaps half that at cruise, thereby delivering what must be technically called powered flight, and headed for McCook, Neb. in the rolling country halfway between Omaha and Denver, where the National Soaring Championships were in their fourth day. I was a hot, bouncy, stomach-wrenching trip across the Central Plains, and halfway there I spent time nervously probing for a passage through a stalled line of thunderstorms perpendicular to my route, finally being forced to detour 300 miles around them, so that the shadows were long by the time I arrived at the contest site, an old B-29 base northwest of McCook.
"I suppose this sort of weather is just great for soaring purposes," I said to the contest director, Major Ed Butts Jr., of Twin Falls, Idaho as I massaged the kinks out of my spinal column against a corrugated hangar door.
"Weak near the ground but fine aloft," he said. "Upper winds SSE at 22 knots, thermal height to 13,000, cloud bases 11,000, surface 100�. Not bad. We sent 'em out on a free-distance task today."
He explained that there are three objectives, or "tasks," in a championship meet: speed along a predetermined course, speed and distance, also on a course, and free distance, in which the pilot is completely on his own as to direction, the idea being simply to land farther from the starting point than anybody else. Each morning Butts and the two meteorologists attending the contest, Ted Lange and Charles Chapell, huddled in deep secrecy with their charts and instrument readings and decided which task would be best served by current conditions.
Shortly after noon, 47 out of a field of 48 sailplanes had been towed aloft and cut loose by a hard-working gaggle of Supercubs and Cessnas, and by the time I arrived they were scattered over three states, most of them having landed, but some still flying. Ultimately, A.J. Smith, of Tecumseh, Mich., the 1961 national champion and leader so far in this meet, covered 282.5 miles in his V-tailed Sisu for the day's outstanding performance.
When anybody goes over 200 miles in a free-distance task, everybody knocks off competition for the next 24 hours. The reason for the mandatory rest period is to allow the ground crews with their trailers time to deploy all over the landscape, locate their respective birds, pull their wings off and bring them back. Nowadays, I was told, recovery is made somewhat easier by the fact that most planes and crews are equipped with two-way VHF radios, which get the crews started off in the right direction, and, with luck, they can pace their man and stay in touch with him.
All through the night and most of the next day, trailers kept rumbling onto the base with their precious planes and their red-eyed, dusty-faced crews, who were having the time of their lives.
Paul Schweizer of the Elmira, N.Y. family that is to American soaring about what Piper, Beech and Cessna combined are to powered flight, and a master of the soft sell, was spending his day of rest taking people up in one of his new two-place SGS 2-32s. I hung around until he offered me a ride. It was easily the biggest kick of my flying career. I had never been near a sailplane before and was used to flying with a wheel instead of a stick; nevertheless, the old maestro stuck me into the front seat, where the view from the bubble canopy is something like that from a Century series jet fighter, and when the towplane had gotten us six feet off the runway, he told me the controls were mine. His only admonition was to stay above the plane's prop wash and to keep the rope taut.