Throughout my professional life, I also participated in competitive sports and other activities.
Sigma Delta Psi National Athletic Honarary
When I was a graduate student at the University of Nevada, I performed a range of athletic tests including track, gymnastics and swimming to qualify for membership in the Sigma Delta Psi national athletic honorary. It is not an easy challenge. Very few people have achieved this level of athletic performance. Sigma Delta Psi members include Astronaut Ed White, Dr. Hatfield, super-athlete Norm Hoffman, Harvey Wray, Dr. Robert Gordon, Scott Hurley, Bill Ruschel, and Thomas Cureton, to name a few.
So great was my interest in our atmosphere that while a graduate student, I learned to fly sailplanes under instructor Ed Blaylock with the Reno soaring club. We flew off Nevada’s dry lakes using an old Buick and a 2000 ft long steel cable to tow the sailplanes to 1200 feet above the dry lake. That way a tow cost us only $1.00. You cannot tow a sailplane aloft with your Prius.
At 1200 ft above ground it was easy to catch strong thermals and soar for hours. Once I caught a strong thermal that gave a 4000 ft/minute upward ride to 16,000 ft ASL, where I purposely exited the thermal because I did not have oxygen aboard. We also did ridge soaring using the updraft created when a wind blows against a hill.
That’s me flying the blue sailplane. In the distance is the dry lake where we take off and land. Once, when I was soaring at 10,000 ft, an eagle arrived and soared just above my left-wing. To the eagle, I was just another bird. If it were not for convection currents moving heat up and thereby cooling the earth’s surface, these sailplanes would be on the ground.
One time, I was in a very strong updraft and got sucked up into a developing thunderstorm. It is like having a blanket dropped over your canopy. The sailplane had no gyro instrument to keep a pilot oriented. Knowing this is a dangerous situation because one will go into a death spiral, I stalled the sailplane and put it into a spin, then waited a seemingly very long time to safely drop through the bottom of the cloud to watch the earth below me spinning around. I spun for a good 1000 feet to get below the very strong updraft before recovering from the spin.
To top it off, as I approached landing on the dry lake, a gust front dust storm approached rapidly from the west. The dust engulfed my plane at about 100 feet above ground giving zero visibility. So I just kept everything steady and waited for the wheel to touch the dry lake … my only zero-zero landing. Once on the ground, I had to stay in the sailplane with brake on and “fly it” to keep it from blowing away. About 15 minutes later, I saw the headlights of vehicles slowly coming my way. These were the other sailplane pilots who had observed my predicament and were hoping to find me and the club sailplane in one piece.
Private Pilot, Instrument License
When I became chief scientist for the DRI aircraft research facility, I took power flight lessons from Tom Wells, our chief pilot, and got my license for power aircraft. Later, I got my instrument license. Tom Wells took this photo of me in Gerlach, Nevada, on my first cross-country flight.
While at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, I took up small boat sailing in the nearby lakes. I accepted sailing as a challenge to my meteorological skill and athletic ability. My wife, Valerie, was my crew. We won almost all the championship races in North America for several years and the Canadian Olympic Training Regatta (CORK) in 1974, the premier of all races.
Below is our sailboat of many years ago, a Fireball. The Fireball is a 16.5 ft long, 220 pounds, centerboard with spinnaker, very competitive international class sailboat. Here we are preparing for a race in our championship boat. This was a beautiful boat: built in England, stiff, and perfectly balanced. We have installed the spinnaker in its tube. Valerie is hooking up the jib. Our boat is like a sports car and it will easily beat the larger boat in the background. Notice the trapeze handles.
A prerequisite to winning in tough competition is not being afraid to go swimming. When you pop the chute in a 20-knot wind in a small boat like this you are sailing on the edge. If you are not willing to sail on the edge you will lose to those who do. If you are afraid to go swimming, you will sail too defensively and chances are you will go swimming. Valerie was good at this because she is an excellent swimmer and athlete and she was never afraid even in the wildest conditions. Once I took a macho motorboat guy for a ride on our Fireball in a 20-knot wind. Afterward, he said it was the first time he had ever been scared on water.
This is after a race. I can tell it is after the race because the clouds give away the direction. We had a west wind aloft and a southwest wind on the lake. The view is to the south and the shadows show it is about 2 PM. Besides our hair is wet.
We entered the National Championship in Austin, Texas, in 1975. The word before the race was only local sailors can win because it takes years to understand the complicated wind on this lake. When we arrived in Austin a few days before the race series, my first stop was at the National Weather Service office where I discussed local weather with the lead meteorologist. Then we sailed the lake for two days so I could observe how the wind came over the hills and down to the lake. After that, I felt I understood the wind on the lake as well as any local.
Here we are in US 7485, with Valerie on the trapeze just after a start in the Fireball National Championship in Austin, Texas. We have an excellent start here and very tough competitors. We won this race and enough other races to win the National Championship. During sailboat races, I see wind indicators on shore and land, and can visualize wind flow around hills and other boats. In a way, I feel like I actually “see” the wind.
We became Pacific Coast champions, National champions, North American champions, and in the premier event of all, the Canadian Olympic Regatta in Kingston (CORK), Ontario, we won Gold Medals. At CORK, we beat some Olympic competitors and Valerie became the first woman ever to win in such high-caliber sailing competition.
If you are going to win a national or world championship in a small centerboard sailboat, you must sail on the ragged edge in strong winds. If you chicken out, someone else will beat you. The only way to win such races is to go, as they say, “balls out” all the way.
Here’s a photo of us from San Francisco’s St. Francis Yacht Club. This is the last leg of a race and we are more than 1/4 mile ahead of the fleet. How did this happen? The boats vary in speed by only a few percent.
We are far ahead because I saw the tide shift from ebb to flow during the first lap, so I departed from the fleet, seemingly losing my close first place at that point, but when we entered the new current, moving in the race direction, we picked up about 5 knots over the rest of the fleet. Even on the second lap, my competitors did not catch on to how to use the tide change.
When the tide changes in the San Francisco Bay, it does not change everywhere at once. The new tide develops near the center of the Bay and then gradually expands to cover the whole Bay. I saw the new tide toward the center of the bay while my competitors saw only the tide near the shore where they were sailing. It was the biggest “horizon job” we ever did on a fleet of expert sailors.
I prefer sailboats without heavy lead keels. I like centerboards, catamarans, trimarans, and windsurfers. Sure, without the lead, you risk going swimming, but the thrill and the challenge is worth it. Since our Fireball, we have had a Hobie 17, a Hobie 18, windsurfers, and a Weta trimaran.
Running, Duathlons, and Triathlons
When in Sacramento, I did more running than sailing. I won several local 5K races. I placed in the USA Top 10 in a four-weekend Duathlon of 5K run – 25K bike – 5K run.
In the 2002 Pan Pacific Masters Games in Sacramento, I ran the 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 5K and finished in the top three in all events. In the 2005 US Masters Nationals in Hawaii, I ran the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m and placed in the top three in all events.
Special thanks to Coach Mike Reid, American River College, Sacramento
At the beginning of the college track season, Coach Mike Reid (track coach for American River College in Sacramento) invited me to work out with his track team. To reciprocate, I coached some of his track team in math.
In March 2007, we went to an all-comers track meet at the University of California, Berkeley. On the advice of good Coach Mike, I focused on the 400 this day and stayed out of the 200 meter race.
I ran my 400 m race with the high-school teams … because there was no one my age to run against.
Before the race began, I told my friends, “Look, if I die out there, don’t cry for me. I would rather die here than in an old age home.” They laughed but I meant it.
The race committee gave me the inside (#1) lane where I could watch all the high school dudes leave me in their dust. Everyone but me used starting blocks. Blocks would not help me because it would use my energy just to stand up.
The starting gun fired and we were off. The high school dudes disappeared in the distance, but their speed “sucked” me along as I tried to keep up. They were finishing their 400 as I entered the straightaway for my final 100 meters.
Just as I was asking myself, “What am I doing in this race?”, the crowd in the stands saw me struggling to finish. It did not matter that I was the last dude in the race, or even that I was a white guy with a mostly black audience. They cheered me on and this made me run faster. I almost fell down as I rushed to the finish line … running as fast as my old legs would carry me.
After I recovered enough to walk around, we checked with the race committee about my time. They electronically clocked me at 67 seconds which is only a few seconds off the US National record for the 70-74 age group.
However, and this is the moral of this story, even if I had tied the National record, I still would have finished last. And that is putting it politely. Those high school dudes had enough time to interview on TV, eat a sandwich, and call their mother before I crossed the finish line. The moral is if you are 71 years old, forget about beating your high school track team. It’s impossible.
Flying an L-29 Jet
In May 2004, I tested my pilot skills in a Russian L-29 jet trainer.The instructor put me in the front seat and gave me the controls right after lift off.
I told the instructor the jet responded just like a sailplane I flew years ago, so I felt right at home. After putting 5000 feet between us and the ground, I did many very tight turns (sailplane like, over 60 degrees bank), keeping altitude, rolling out on designated headings. I did multiple rolls and loops.
After we landed, my instructor told me my very tight turns were excellent and these were the most challenging and dangerous of stunts. On the way back home, my instructor said, “I have never done this before on someone’s first ride but I am going to let you land it.” I asked him for an approach speed and I landed the L-29 with no problem.
Moved to Montana
I moved to Montana in 2008 and began a new life. I have a 400 meter “summer” track in my backyard.
In 2013, one month short of age 78, I rowed 500 meters on a Concept 2 in 1:46.3 to earn a 2014 world fourth place in the 70-79 age group, and second place in the lightweight division.
The Concept 2 rower is the best exercise machine in a gym. It uses all your major muscles. It lets you max out in speed, strength and endurance. It’s safe and fun. If you haven’t rowed a Concept 2 rower, you should try it.
Valerie and I enjoy living in Bigfork, Montana, and hiking in Glacier Park.