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It is the day before Thanksgiving in Southern California. A late afternoon sun hangs just above the ocean, glinting through translucent orange wings as the sailplane banks for a slow turn, loops once, then dives straight for the water off Salt Creek Beach. Two surfers, hunkering on their boards as they wait for the day's last ride, duck instinctively, but in the instant before it plummets into the waves the glider pulls sharply out of the dive, loops again and climbs swiftly on a turbulent updraft. The plane, nearly four feet long with a wingspan just over eight feet, resumes its lazy figure-eight flight, drifting 75 to 100 feet offshore in a pattern parallel to the ridgeline like an orange-skinned osprey looking for something to eat.
On the edge of the ridge above the beach stands Hobie Alter, a grin on his weathered face, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, a two-channel radio transmitter in his hands. He is dressed in his business clothes: a flowered Hawaiian sport shirt, baggy denim pants, old sneakers and wraparound sunglasses. With the exception of his right thumb, deftly working the control stick of the transmitter, he is motionless. He is in rigid communion with his glider, the Hobie Hawk.
The Hawk, weighing only 30 ounces without its radio-control equipment, which consists of two tiny servo units mounted in the cockpit and joined to the rudder and elevator by thin control rods, is the latest creation by Alter, now 41, the maverick designer who personally revolutionized the sport of surfing in the 1950s and who builds more catamarans today than anyone else in the world. Along the way Hobie has become a millionaire, but that has changed neither his hell-raising life-style nor his compulsive dusk-to-dawn work habits. Although he is chairman of the board of the Coast Catamaran Corp., he has no office at its 15-acre headquarters and plant in Irvine, preferring—in the style of the Wright brothers' bicycle shop—to work in a large cluttered room over his garage. For relaxation, give him some old friends, a case of beer and either a dirt bike, a catamaran or a model glider. He bought his one and only business suit in 1958, and to call him either "Mr. Alter" or " Hobart," his given name, is as appropriate as calling Henry Kissinger "Hank."
"To really fly one of these sailplanes right," says Hobie, "you have to get your mind inside the plane. You have to feel yourself up there with it and anticipate what it'll do as the air currents change. Here, give it a try." He hands over the transmitter, and for a moment I feel as if I have been turned into a block of Jell-O. With hardly any effort on my part I can send $300 worth of high-density Styrofoam, cross-linked polyethylene, ABS plastic and some rather sophisticated electronic sensory gear into the Pacific. "Remember," Hobie says, "move the stick right to turn the plane right, left to turn left, push it forward for down and pull back for up. That's all there is to it. Just don't overcontrol it. If you turn too tight, the plane will go into a spin."
Gingerly I push the stick to the right. As the plane begins to turn, Hobie tells me to let off on the stick. "Just blip it a little bit. Make your turns nice and slow at first," he says. "There's plenty of lift out there so the plane will free-fly without your doing much of anything." I tap the spring-loaded stick two or three times with my index finger as though flicking the ashes from a cigarette, and the glider swings in a wide right-hand arc over the ocean. I try the same thing again, only this time to the left, then back again to the right and, despite my earlier skepticism about the enjoyment quotient of a model airplane for an adult, I'm hooked: a glider junkie in less than two minutes.
As the plane's wings bob in the unstable air my stomach jumps and my knees tremble. With my finger I seem to control this noiseless creature, yet, like a launched falcon, the plane retains a control of its own—it is an eerie man-made reproduction of a bird of prey.
My last dealings with a model airplane were at the age of 13 when the two thin pieces of wire linking me to my authentic scale version of a P-51 Mustang snapped and, with a noise like a chain saw being swallowed whole by some great beast, the plane was reduced to a set of Pick Up Sticks in a nearby elm tree. The Hobie Hawk is different. Like everything Hobie Alter has designed, it uses no fuel, has no smell and is so functionally sleek that it seems to be in motion even when it is still. Its only sound is the shriek of the wind rushing by the upswept wings during a high-speed dive.
My aeronautic reverie is interrupted when the glider, without warning, noses up into a stall. Instead of allowing it to level off with just a gentle push on the control stick, I panic and jam the stick forward. For a moment the sailplane hangs motionless, then hurtles toward the water like a bag of cement. Frantically I pull back on the stick. The plane performs one marvelous loop, a second even more impressive than the first and continues its Kamikaze journey toward the sea. For the first time I hear Hobie's childish giggle, a strange sound coming from a man with Lee Marvin-James Coburn tough-guy looks. Calmly he takes the transmitter from my busy hands and the glider flattens out 20 feet above the ocean, where it circles, waiting to rise on another updraft. I had allowed the plane to get too low, and while high-altitude corrections are simple, flying a Hobie Hawk below 50 feet is about as easy as moving a large old dog out of the sun.
"You have to watch the glider every minute," says Hobie as he brings it into the wind for a soft landing in some grass. "The range of these transmitters is two miles, and when the plane gets out of sight there's no way in the world you can control it. A guy up in Aspen who bought one from me spent three days hunting in the mountains for his." The orange Hobie Hawk rests on the ground between us. Beneath the tinted plastic canopy are the radio-control servo units, lending the glider the sinister aspect of a miniature U-2 spy plane. The surfaces of wing, fuselage and rudder flow together to create a symmetry that reflects the thousands of hours Hobie spent building models until he perfected this sailplane.
"In a way," he says, "the glider is like the surfboard or the catamaran. But instead of the water's flow, it makes you aware of the movement of air. You watch birds and the way they pick up thermals and soar. Tomorrow we'll go out with my friend the Colonel and try to get the glider up in a thermal with some hawks. Now that's real fun." Hobie's eyes widen as they do whenever he is excited or wants to stress an important point. The Colonel, I am told, is a fanatical model builder who considers ridge soaring to be child's play. He concentrates on thermal soaring—maneuvering the sailplane into warm rising air where, with skillful handling, it can glide for hours.