"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."