An ex-Navy pilot from Toledo and a beautiful little butterfly-tailed sailplane which he built with his own hands won the 27th annual U.S. National Soaring championships last week at Odessa, Texas. To do it, they defeated the finest group of glider pilots ever assembled in America—among them A. J. Smith (above), shown soaring over Odessa. In seven days of varied types of competition—flying to certain specific goals, flying to a goal and returning, flying a triangular course, flying for distance—Dick Schreder and his HP-8 won five first places, tied for another first and tied for a third. This was about what the 5,000 soaring addicts who live in scattered parts of the U.S. expected when Schreder, his sailplane and the storied thermals of west Texas all got together at the same time (a thermal is a rising current of air that is, in effect, a sailplane's motor).
Schreder (he pronounces it Skreeder) is 44 years old, and the HP-8 (the HP is for high performance) is only little more than two, yet they have more or less grown up in soaring together. In the early days of World War II, flying a PBM on patrol out of Bermuda, Schreder was credited with the first Nazi sub sunk by an American pilot. He maintained an active interest in aviation after the war, but it wasn't until 1955 that he discovered soaring.
In 1958 he built his HP-8, which is heavier than most sailplanes, and after only one test flight took it to Bishop, Calif. and won his first national championship. In 1959, at Elmira, N.Y., where soaring conditions are not so favorable as in California or Texas, Schreder finished second to Dick Johnson, a five-time national champion who was flying a much lighter plane. This year, in the Internationals at Cologne, Germany, the HP-8 was outclassed by a horde of European sailplanes built to fly the light-lift thermals and ridge waves of Europe. All that Schreder accomplished was to come down in East Germany behind the Iron Curtain; for 24 hours he was an international incident.
"What worried me were the farmers," he says now. "I landed in a potato field and really tore up the potatoes. But eventually I realized that this was a collective farm and they didn't care about the potatoes. They thought I was a spy."
There are no potatoes around Odessa, Texas. There are horned toads and jack rabbits and mesquite trees, rattlesnakes, oil wells and cactus—and those lovely thermals. Odessa, a booming oil town marked by wide, clean streets and friendly people wearing ten-gallon hats, is located about halfway between Fort Worth and El Paso; it is also located at the southern tip of a great fairway of hot wind which sweeps up across the Texas panhandle, through Oklahoma and into Kansas. Along this course, on hot days—and there are few other kinds in west Texas in August—there occurs the constant production of rising bubbles of hot air which become puffy clumps of cumulus clouds upon reaching the condensation point, dotting the blue Texas sky like exploding popcorn.
These thermals furnish lift to the slender, delicate wings of the sailplane, pushing the remarkably tough little craft up to altitudes from which it can glide for miles and miles until it reaches the ground—or finds another thermal. Most topflight competitive sailplanes weigh around 500 pounds; Schreder's weighs 600. The lighter planes have a slight soaring edge under weak lift conditions. But once aloft, the heavier HP-8 goes like a homesick hornet, cruising at about 110 mph (and sometimes hitting 140), compared to the 80- or 90-mile speed of its rivals.
On the first day of the contest, cut loose by the tow plane at 2,000 feet, Schreder found all the hot air he needed to get the HP-8 up high, and, once there, no one could catch him. He completed the 134-mile triangular course at an average speed of 52.6 mph, losing time only when he had to stop and search for another thermal in which to climb, as a motorist on a long trip must occasionally sweat out a gas station.
On the second day, in a competition which involved going out to a goal, returning and then continuing along the line of flight as far as the pilot could go, Schreder went farther than anyone else, picking his way over 330 miles with that strange sixth sense of thermal-detection which only the best sailplane pilots seem to have. "Anyone," said Beaumont Cooley, the contest director, "can hang around an airport and stay aloft in familiar thermals all day. But to head out across country, you've got to be good. Guys like Schreder are pilots and meteorologists, and they're sort of geniuses, too."
They have to be. They face some odd problems. On that second day, while at an altitude of 11,000 feet, John Ryan of Scottsdale, Ariz. felt something sting him in the seat like a white-hot poker. Frantically scraping his hand between pants and parachute, he pulled out a murderous-looking Texas stinging scorpion. "How the hell do I know what he was doing up there?" he said when he was back on the ground. "I guess he just wanted a ride."
Schreder and Smith
On the third day, when the problem was to reach a specific distant goal and return to Odessa, Schreder was one of only two pilots to make it all the way (A. J. Smith, who is an architect in Tecumseh, Mich., when he isn't soaring, was the other). The distance they covered, 338.5 miles, was a world record for this particular type of task. Charley Yeates, one of two Canadian entries, had to land short of the goal and stepped out of his glider onto the grounds of the state mental hospital at Big Spring. "Telephone around?" he asked the curious gathering. Someone waved toward a building. "May I use the telephone?" Yeates asked the nurse on duty. "Do you have permission?" she asked. "Look, lady," said Yeates, "I don't belong here." The nurse smiled. "Of course not," she said. "None of you do. Now will you go on out and play?"
The fourth and fifth days were speed tests, and again Schreder won. At this point he had the unheard-of total of 5,000 points (an automatic 1,000 for winning each day). But on the sixth day the weather and the truly outstanding field from which he had been fleeing got in their licks. This was an open distance day, in which each contestant heads out in any direction he chooses and flies as far as he is able. Family, friends and crewmen trail frantically behind in private automobiles, stopping to call back to contest headquarters from time to time to see if there has been any word. Finally they are told yes, their man is down. And where and when and, sometimes, why.
Some flew north and some flew west. Bill Ivans of San Diego, who set the world altitude record 10 years ago by riding his Schweizer 1-23 sailplane up the famous Sierra wave to a height of 42,100 feet, came down just ahead of a rainstorm somewhere in the vicinity of Rosebud, N. Mex. For two hours he sat in the dripping cockpit. When the rain stopped, he walked four miles through ankle-deep mud to a farmhouse—where the storm had knocked out the telephone. The farmer's Volkswagen carried Ivans to another phoneless farm, and another automobile took him 22 miles farther. There he was finally able to put through a call to Odessa. By then it was 1 a.m.
Schreder and his closest competitors flew toward the northeast, planning to work out ahead of the cold front which had dumped rain across Colorado, Kansas and the upper part of Oklahoma, as well as upon Bill Ivans in New Mexico. Schreder made it to Lawton, Okla. municipal airport, 293 miles from Odessa, landed and pulled his glider in between two hangars. A few minutes later Smith came across the field at 3,000 feet in his gleaming-white German-built LO-150 and decided to come down, too. "It was almost dark," Smith said later. "The lift was about gone, and I didn't know what landing conditions might be like up ahead. So I dove off my hard-earned 3,000 feet and headed into the final approach. Then, just before I touched down, I saw Schreder's plane. It was too late to look for another thermal then; all I could do was land. That son of a gun. He's pretty slick." Schreder and Smith tied for third place.
Philip the calm
The remarkable 52-year-old Britisher, Philip Wills, came down in a field just one mile further on, to finish second. With his glasses and pipe and gangling legs sticking out of a pair of rumpled brown shorts, with the weird, battered old felt hat in which he flies pulled down low upon his head, Wills greeted the Oklahoma farmer on whose acres he had landed. The farmer helped Wills pull the famous Skylark III into an empty cow lot and invited him inside for a bite to eat while Wills's crew came from their last location, 160 miles away. Refreshed by dinner and a brief nap, Wills strolled outside into the moonlight—and discovered that two large calves had joined Skylark III in the corral, kicked a hole in the rudder and eaten part of the fabric off the left wing.
"A number of interesting things have happened to me in 28 years of flying sailplanes," said Wills calmly. "Once I was blown all the way across the Channel and had to land in France. Another time, during the war, I was asked to demonstrate how German glider troops might invade us, and some bloke took a shot at me. In New Zealand I unexpectedly came upon this tremendous wave and rode it to over 30,000 feet, dressed only in a pair of shorts.
"But never," he went on, "has my aircraft been eaten by cattle."
Farthest of all that day went Bernie Carris in the old RJ-5. A soaring instructor for the Schweizer Aircraft Corporation of Elmira, he was expected to give Schreder the tightest competition in the absence of former champion Dick Johnson, who did not compete this year. But Carris, who had borrowed the RJ-5 from a friend (who had bought it from Johnson), had difficulty getting accustomed to its characteristics during the early days of the championship. After two days of familiarization, however, the smooth old sailplane and its balding, 38-year-old pilot, who was a tailgunner in a B-17 during World War II, began to work well together. Carris had a third-place tie on the third day of competition, came in second on the fourth, second again on the fifth, hanging tight onto Schreder's tail. When he landed at Duncan, Okla., 310 miles from Odessa, to finish first on the sixth day, Carris cut Schreder's lead to just 316 points. But it was then—on the last day—that Schreder showed how good he really was.
The last contest was a short speed run, 53 miles down the highway to McCamey and back. While the other contestants were on the ground waiting for their allotted take-off times, Schreder went up for a practice spin, sampling the thermals, testing the wind, looking around. By take-off time he was back on the ground, better prepared than anyone else. One of the last to leave, Schreder was the first to return, crossing the finish line 20 minutes before anyone else appeared on the horizon, widening his lead and socking away his second national championship with one of the most convincing and one-sided performances of the entire meeting.
Schreder finished with 6,945 points out of a possible 7,000. Carris was second with 6,516, Smith third for the second straight year with 6,374, and Wills fourth with 6,121.
"That Schreder is a fox," said Beaumont Cooley in admiration. "I don't know if he has the best sailplane, but his sailplane sure as heck has the best pilot."