SI Vault
Bob Ottum
April 16, 1973
For some reason, possibly a soft spot in their stern makeup, hawks and eagles accept sailplanes. More than that, they often show a positive affection: they'll soar right along, beak by jowl, banking and swooping, veering up close to peer through the Plexiglas cockpit cover to stare into the eyes of this big white bird, the King Kong of all birds. "It is partly cause and effect," says sailplane pilot Jim George of Prescott, Ariz. "We both seek out the same thermals to ride, so we're often thrown together. Still, if given a chance an eagle or a hawk will come out to play. It will fly formation for a while, then wing over into a tight climbing turn. And then it will look down to see if the giant can make it. Oh, he made it? Next time, the bird will turn tighter and then hang off to one side, floating and thinking, 'Ah, ha. Clumsy, just as I figured.' "
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April 16, 1973

High With A Big White Bird

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But while the lonely joys of sailplaning are one thing, they inevitably lead to competition, partly because all good flyers like to show their stuff and partly because, as George puts it, "in flying rigid altitude and distance problems, you get rehooked on your sport."

The illustrations on the foregoing pages came from last season's national soaring championships, a surprisingly casual affair staged out of Minden, Nev.; a sunny valley down the road a piece from Reno and Carson City, where there are sweeping sage vistas and shadowy mountains on all sides, as though the backdrop had been designed by some master sailplaner. Through it all the Nevadans remained as unshakable as ever, aware that there were a lot of strange dudes in town in flying coveralls and crushed golf hats—and a lot of funny white planes passing quietly overhead—but unconcerned that the valley was for a few days the country's focal point of a unique brand of sporting joy.

On a particularly hot midday one of the natives rolled down the road to the old cracked blacktop airstrip and stood with one boot up on the running board of his pickup truck, squinting out from beneath the rim of his hat at the covey of airplanes circling against the shoulder of the nearby mountain. An earnest sail-planer was explaining it to him.

"There's an updraft over there against that mountain," the flyer said, "and the sailplane gets in it, see, and climbs up and up. And if you'll look closely over there, you'll see that some hawks are mixed in with the planes, riding up on the same thermal. Yes sir, those guys fly right with the birds."

The rancher nodded, then turned his head and spat thoughtfully. "Goin' up with the birds, huh," he said. "Well, I always figgered them rascal birds had to be good for something."

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