Like dragonflies usurping a hornet's nest, the sailplanes took over Stead Air Force Base near Reno last month for the U.S. National Soaring Championships. Sixty-five of them lay beside the jet aprons, where signs still warned, "CAUTION: Keep Clear of Jet Exhaust, Min. Safe Distance 200 Feet." There were no signs to warn the visitors about deserts and angry farmers and hungry cows and quicksand, and there was no need. Sailplane pilots know all about such things as that.
Graceful and perishably beautiful, the sailplanes presented as pretty a sight as can be found in sport, but in competitive soaring beauty is only a pleasant byproduct of efficient design. And as what local newspaperman Mark Twain used to call a Washoe zephyr swept down from the burnt-brown Nevada hills, setting the tightest tied sailplanes to twitching at their moorings, one was reminded how eagerly and well these ships fly. A sailplane is flight stripped to its basic fascination—two wings and a tail, with bare accommodation for one man.
Sailplanes that weigh no more than 600 pounds have soared to 46,000 feet, higher than any Boeing 727. In this national championship one craft would log 456 miles in a day, and another—George Moffat's Austria SH-1—would average 71 miles per hour this very afternoon, including pauses to find lift and circle for altitude.
"Quiet in the hangar, please!" ordered Competitions Director Marshall Claybourn at the opening morning pilots' meeting. "The first day's task is a speed task." Moffat, holder of the international speed records for 100-and 300-kilometer triangles, permitted himself a short smile. "...101 miles to Hawthorne and return on a true course of 139�. Shear should develop at Walker Lake, with isolated cu's south of this line...." Moffat made brisk notes. "The takeoff line closes at 1730, start and finish gates at 2030. The CAP plane will leave the turnpoint at 1900 hours. Towplanes will give the usual signal—rocking of wings and a rattle of the rudder; that's when you drop off. If you come down, have your crew give us exact latitude and longitude."
When the meeting was over, Moffat stood up and placed a big brown Australian station hat on his head. "Shear," he explained on his way to the weather shack for his daily extra pumping of Weatherman John Marsh, "is caused by a convergence of air masses. Where they meet, the air sure as hell can't go down, so it's got to go up—18,000 feet at least." George, who is 39, teaches English literature to prep school boys at the Pingry School in Elizabeth, N.J. Sometimes he talks like an English teacher. Sometimes he doesn't.
"Could you say a word about the anticipated strength of those thermals?" he asked Meteorologist Marsh. "Quite strong," Marsh said. Moffat looked satisfied. Thermals—columns of warm, rising air caused by uneven heating of the earth's surface—are steppingstones in the sky for soarers, whose chief expertise consists of knowing how and when to skip from one to another. Thermals are generally marked by fluffy cumulus clouds—cu's in soaring shorthand—and, along with shears and standing waves in the lee of mountain ranges, provide the levitating force on which sailplane pilots depend. Improvising a course through this visible and invisible geography of the sky while simultaneously maintaining a balance of speed and altitude is the major appeal of soaring.
Any competent soaring pilot can find these things, but only an expert can employ them to full advantage. "There is a strong temptation to go where someone—anyone—is circling, or to work a thermal all the way to the top," says Moffat, who is a precisionist. "It's not how long you use a thermal but how fast you go up that counts. In a really good one, it's possible to climb darn close to as fast as a jet. You should use only about 30% of a mediocre one, then go off and find another.
"It's important, on the other hand, to avoid the thunderstorms into which cu's may develop. Thunderstorms around here are so big that the blowoff—ice crystals blowing off the anvil of the thunderhead—will just shut your lift off. Or one can very easily suck you up beyond your oxygen capability. Ben Greene was lifted at better than a mile a minute once. At that rate you can quickly lose your wings and, very shortly thereafter, yourself."
At the tie-down area Suzanne Moffat, a pretty, spirited girl of 26 who uses the wind as her hairdresser, helped her husband check emergency supplies. They inspected the first-aid kit, concentrated food, flash and flares.
"We're plagued with people who want to emphasize the danger," George said. "Just flying a sailplane around is safer than power flying. One fundamental safety factor is the soft landing. You have marvelous control—anywhere between a 40� approach with full dive breaks to 3� with none. In contest or record flight, of course, you're definitely stretching a little. On a glide you may easily reach 150 mph where the placard speed is listed at 86." Placard speed is that beyond which the manufacturer makes no guarantee that things will not start coming off.