- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Pecos Bill was right on: everything in West Texas can bite. Not just the sudden rattlesnakes and those acrobatic tarantulas; not merely multifanged cactus and wild white roses that will rip an arm to the bone. Even the sky can bite in West Texas. It was the first lesson learned by the cosmopolitan participants in the world soaring championship—gliders, folks—which swooped to a finish last week in Marfa.
Take the skybite case of Walter Neubert, open class sailplane ace of the West German team and an early-form favorite to take the championship back home to the land where competitive gliding first started to soar. Here is Walter, skipping along from cloud to cloud on the second day of the meet. He's admiring the dihedral of a few nearby turkey vultures when—hupla!—the sky opens its mouth and swallows him into a spike-lined valley. Walter climbs out of his white Kestrel 22 and surveys the scene. Not a cumulus cloud within range. No radio contact with his crewmen, who are out there somewhere among the cacti in the pursuit car. Weaving his way through the rattlers, Walter comes upon a hog farm and—Gott sei dank!—it has a telephone. But nobody is home. Unfortunately, Walter is the world's only shy German and he doesn't go in. Instead, he spends the night back in the cockpit. As a result, he accumulates a scant 14 points of his possible 1,000 and, despite two first-place finishes later in the meet, he cannot close the gap with the leaders. Jawohl, mein Kind, skybite can hurt.
When the two-week meet came to an end, it was a brace of unskybitten schoolteachers who walked away with the laurels. The open class championship went to America's George Moffat, 43, a lean, reticent English teacher from the Pingry School in Elizabeth, N.J. (SI, Aug. 1, 1966). Moffat seems to take the Romantic poets literally. Thinking like a thermal, he wandered lonely as a cloud over the plains around Marfa to ring up 8,323 of a possible 9,000 points. (Each day the class winner takes 1,000 points, with the runners-up getting proportionately fewer.) In the standard class—where wing-spans are limited to 49 feet versus the unlimited spans of the open class, which includes Moffat's one-of-a-kind 72.5-foot Nimbus—victory went to West Germany's Helmut Reichmann, another pedagogue, who was given the nickname of Red Baron. He actually outflew Moffat, scoring 8,663 points in a field where the competition was deeper, if not faster, than among the "big boys." And at the age of 28, Reichmann became the youngest aviator ever to win a world soaring championship. Thanks to the Red Baron, the Germans—who placed second in the open class and added a fifth place behind Reichmann in the standard—regained the unofficial team championship that they had relinquished to the Poles and the Americans.
But points and championships are only the grossest guidelines to what competitive soaring is all about. In more ways than one, atmosphere is the name of the game, and Marfa, Texas gave world class competition a whole new perspective. Of the 11 world championships flown since 1937, this was the first to take place in the United States. Usually the biennial event is held closer to civilization—on broad, eastern European grass plains such as the one at Leszno, Poland in 1968, or in the shadow of picturesque and precious mountain ranges like the Alps. By contrast, Marfa is Meansville—not because of the people, who except for the traffic cops are uniformly courteous, interested and helpful. They even cleared all their old beer cans off the adjacent highways before the international guest list arrived. No, sir, Marfa is mean by way of environment. This is the Big Bend country of Texas, and Marfa (pop. 2,799) sits on a high, semiarid plateau 4,688 feet above sea level. Sun that can leech a man to jerky in the course of a clear afternoon lies pitiless on the fiats and sends the surrounding mountains into giddy heat-wave gyrations by 10 in the morning. One of those peaks, known locally as the Widow's Tit, would have done justice to a tassel-twirling stripper.
Or course, it is precisely that fierce sun and those sere, baking-pan plains that make Marfa one of the best soaring grounds in the world. Only South Africa and Australia consistently produce better thermals, those columns of hot air that rise from bright, sun-heated surfaces to form cumulus clouds. The CUs, as soarers call them, are the visual keys to the sport: a good pilot hops from one tall thermal to the next, alternately trading off altitude for horizontal speed and then speed for altitude in his cross-country jaunts. As if to confirm the virtues of Marfa as a soaring center, the buzzards and hawks of the region seem to fly higher and longer than anywhere else. One American ace, Wally Scott of Odessa, Texas, noted: "I spotted a hawk at 8,000 feet the other day, just amblin' around up there, no way he was going to swoop on any jackrabbit from that altitude. Shucks, he just loves soarin' like we do."
If soaring itself puts a man in closer touch with nature, simply being on the ground—either watching or crewing—can put him even closer in Marfa. Apart from the ubiquitous snakes, spiders (both tarantula and brown recluse, among the real baddies) and scorpions, there are mule deer, whitetails and antelope in the surrounding plains and hills, plus the odd cougar. This is primarily cattle country, and the folks themselves have that natural look.
So, Marfa is not Poland or Austria or even Elmira, N.Y., and the competitors from 25 countries who gathered there quickly turned on to the atmosphere. Middle European esthetes found themselves eating earth-baked calf's head and swinging lariats at the nearby ranches. Italian Team Manager Piero Morelli got nipped by a brown recluse—that noxious, nocturnal arachnid that has recently spread into the Southwest from its Middle Western range. Fortunately, Morelli consulted the Australian team manager, a physician, before they had to amputate. "The members of my team believe that the recluse can kill a child," Morelli commented in the meet's elegantly written daily bulletin. "But they also are sure, however, that if it bites a team manager, the recluse immediately dies."
The focal point of the meet was Presidio County Airport, 10 miles outside of Marfa. A World War II bomber training base, it provided few amenities but compensated with some beautiful natural touches. Whole squadrons of barn swallows live in the hangar, and their frisky flight, gentle chirping and not-infrequent bombing runs livened up even the dullest of "rest" days. The soaring people livened it further with pranks and punning. Bent or broken gliders—and there were many—were promptly hauled to the "Wreckreation Room," while the placard above the shed where Finland's crew hung out was quickly amended to read "FINNISHed Team." Probably by some Swede.
But there was tension to balance the frivolity—particularly among the topflight contenders. George Moffat, hardly a gagster under any circumstances, whitened under his tan before each tow, while his wife, Suzanne—a cheerful chick as sleek as any glider—solemnly flagged off well-wishers until the meet was over. Oddly enough, the West Germans, who can be distressingly humorless if you put them in anything mechanized such as a sports car or a Messerschmitt, were perhaps the jolliest of the top contestants. They had reason to be. Most of the really hot ships—from Moffat's victorious Nimbus to the Kestrels, Cirruses, ASW12s and LS-1s—were of German manufacture, and certainly the spirit was there. It wasn't the spirit of Richthofen, however, but rather that of Ernst Udet, the literate and gentlemanly World War I ace who later wrote beautiful books about flight, or of Wolfgang Langewiesche, another ethereal wordman and aviator of those old days.
On the last day of competition, with standard class flier Reichmann nearly 500 points ahead of his nearest challengers, the skilled and feared Poles, Jan Wroblewski and Franciszek Kepka, the Germans were just a touch uptight. "He's got to finish to win it," says Reichmann's crew driver, Hannes Linke, as the Red Baron closes his plexiglass cockpit. "If he should fall one foot short of the finish line, we may be kaput." Linke is a husky young pilot who spends his non-soaring time as a factory foreman in Los Angeles.