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.' "
Jim George is for the birds. Well, so is every sailplaner every chance he gets, and most of them regard the aerial companionship as a mystical communion, one of the bonuses of trundling through the sky unhampered by such things as cylinders and propellers.
Given this frame of mind—and anybody who flies around with hawks can be excused a bit of exaggeration—sailplane pilots claim their sport is not only man's highest calling but also one of the easiest to master. The average earth-ling is ready to solo after six or seven hours of dual instruction (one hour will do it if the student is already a pilot of power planes), and everything beyond that is on-the-job polishing of techniques. When in doubt, look for the birds. Well, most of the time.
"There are times when the birds come looking for you," says Robert A. Chase of Stockton, Calif. "The fact that an eagle can fly is no guarantee that it is bright, and when one or two of them see a sailplane in a lazy climb, they'll amble over and borrow your thermal."
For a sporting breed, sailplane pilots tend to be pretty introspective; like sailors, they stand around and sniff the air a lot, staring off into cloud formations. Only when collected in a group do they surrender to animation, describing their flights and landings and narrow escapes with slashing swoops of their open hands. In that sense they are like a fraternity of perennial sophomores. The initiation rite is an off-field landing, one where the pilot has put the ship down expertly in a rural field surrounded by high-tension wires, circled with barbed-wire fences, studded with jagged stumps, and has stepped out unscratched. One oldtime pilot sees such adventure as a romantic version of the traveling salesman story: the ideal is to emerge from the plane to be greeted by the farmer's pliant daughter. But it never happens, he says.
Aside from that forlorn hope, the overriding kick in sailplaning is in getting up in it: alone at quiet altitude, boosted along by thermals and invisible waves, and knowing that only a clever glide is going to get you back to the airfield. Jim George, whose Swiss-built Diamant is pictured in the watercolor on page 51, soars some 300 hours a year, has been sailplaning since 1967 and is still hooked on the harmony with nature as though on each flight he were discovering it for the first time. "This is a very personal sport, like skiing," he says, "and there is nothing like flying over and around the mountains, the master of your ship, making it do what you want."
The average duffer can stay aloft for two hours, says George, and most pilots can squeeze four or five hours per flight on normal days; George and other veterans have flown for as long as nine hours at a stretch, sometimes covering a couple of states along the way.
"At first you start out flying around the flagpole," he says, "pretty much keeping the field in sight. And then, gradually, you stray further afield, extending yourself up to 400 miles or so, exploring the country, flying with the birds and looking around."
Does a sailplane require constant care and feeding? "Listen," says George, "there are times when you are in such complete harmony with nature, sitting there under that glass-topped dish in the sunshine, warm and tanned and happy, that you have to fight to keep yourself from dozing off; there are times when the flying can be euphoric."
Chase agrees. "My Nimbus II climbs well in weak lift," he says, "and I can keep it aloft for five or six hours at a time." Slicing in over the Mojave Desert out of Los Angeles, Chase will look for dust devils kicked up by the wind, pull his ship into a tight turn and ride them up for several hundred feet, then get off "surrounded by a nice creaking quiet and away from all distractions."
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."