Why Uvalde? Why, Indeed!

Soaring Cafe would like to thank the SSA for allowing us to post this article by Gena Tabery which was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Soaring Magazine.
-- the Editors

In July of 1984, a small notice ran in the Calendar section of Soaring Magazine: “Aug. 20-25, Region 10 Contest, Uvalde, Texas, sponsored by Uvalde Flight Center and Fault Line Flyers (bid subject to approval). Contact Ron Tabery, c/o Uvalde Flight Center.”  This inconspicuous notice is memorable for a couple of reasons. It first appeared in July for an August contest, whose bid was yet to be approved. Clearly this was a start-up operation. But more important, it marked Uvalde’s entrance into the arena of competition soaring.

Less than a year earlier, Tabery had transferred from San Diego to South Texas to work on a heavy oil project. With a house still in Austin, he thought he might just commute from Austin to Uvalde by glider. Says Tabery, “The conditions seemed to be superb, not as an exception, but as a routine. By that I mean that cloud streets occurred more than often, with extraordinary straight line flying possibilities.” In short, says Tabery, “I noticed that it was good.”

Tabery went to the airport to ask Uvalde Flight Center manager Mark Huffstutler to tow his Glasflugel 604. “He wasn’t quite sure what I was talking about at the time,” says Tabery, “but he caught on quickly. Before long, he found a Cessna 182 with a retractable gear and put a tow hook on it.”

With minimum of training, Mark Huffstutler became a tow pilot. Says Tabery, “He fired up the 182 and off we went, clearing the fence by 50’ with wheels on both airplanes coming up.  It was a great day weatherwise. I released, climbed immediately to 8,000’ and headed south on cloudstreets to explore new soaring territory.” Huffstutler followed in his towplane, “doing barrel rolls around me,” says Tabery. “I flew a few hours and came back, mesmerized by conditions. It was even better than it looked.”

Right away, Huffstutler bought a Schweizer 2-33 (a trainer) and discovered there was more to cross country soaring than just having a sailplane--it had to be a good one. “I could see the twinkle in his eye starting to go dim,” says Tabery. With about ten hours of solo time, Huffstutler launched in Tabery’s ASW-17, with Tabery accompanying him in his 604. The two flew together, and Tabery decided to push the bar a little higher.

“How would you feel about hosting a competition here in Uvalde?” he asked.

Huffstutler had never seen a glider competition before and was only vaguely aware that such a thing was possible, but he said, “Sure. Why not?”

There were three classes in that first Uvalde competition: 15-meter, Open, and Sports. Twenty-one pilots registered for the contest, Huffstutler one of them, flying Tabery’s ASW-17 with “almost zero hours,” as Kerry King Huffstutler remembers it. “Every day he went out and flew, and I thought, ‘Well, ‘he’s got more hours now than he did before.’” Mark Huffstutler recalls, “I had barely completed whatever was required to fly in a regional.

One day, I was first up to launch, yo-yoing behind the tow plane, trying to get my gear up. Finally I did, and the plane released, at about 500 feet. I did a quick 180 and landed on the runway facing the lineup on the grid.” As it happens, Dick Johnson was next in line that day, waiting to launch. “Dick got out of his plane, walked up to me and said, ‘Next time, leave your gear down till you’re off tow.’ I learned something new every day that contest.”

As Competition Director, Tabery enlisted local help. Kerry King (Huffstutler) ran operations, and her brother Chip King was the film developer for the turnpoint verification photos. Tabery got Charlie Spratt to run the gate. “He had binoculars, and he knew how,” said Tabery.

“One day,” says Kerry Huffstutler, “Ron showed up with a bunch of orange and black t-shirts in the trunk of his car.” Tabery recalls, “I thought we should have contest shirts, and those were the colors I could find.” “It looked like Halloween out there on the field,” says Huffstutler. During that contest, CDTabery called tasks as long as 500k. Tabery says, “Everybody made it around, every day. Word got out.”

The next year, 1985, Mark and Kerry Huffstutler took over and ran Uvalde’s second regional competition. Forty-two pilots registered, twice the number as the year before. Charlie Spratt served as CD. “Charlie came in like a tornado,” Kerry Huffstutler recalls. “ I remember looking at Mark after the contest and saying, “What just happened?”

In the early years of Uvalde contests, says Mark Huffstutler, “Nobody really had a title. Everyone flowed around and did what needed to be done.” Mark’s parents Tom and Jane Huffstutler pitched in, building new water taps, fixing equipment, running to the hardware store. Boots Scott helped organize operations. Kerry Huffstutler’s brothers Steve and Chip both helped where needed. “We just divided up the tasks as they came along,” remembers Mark Huffstutler.

By that time soaring in Uvalde had started to acquire a life of its own. And a lot of momentum. Now with two regional contests under their belts, maybe, thought the Huffstutlers, they had sufficient experience to host a national competition.

When Mark approached Eric Mozer, Head of the Site Selection Committee Mozer is widely reported to have said, “It will be a snow-ball throwing day in hell before we hold a Nationals in Uvalde.”  Cooler heads prevailed, and in August of 1986, Uvalde hosted its first national contest. Sixty-five pilots from the 15-meter class flew that year—the contest limit. Over eighty tried to register.

Writing about the competition for Soaring, Stephen Drane noted, “Uvalde is located near the Eastern edge of the Chihuahua Desert and at the same time, less than 200 miles from the warm water and moist air of the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, Uvalde is on the Northern boundary of the low flat Texas Coastal Plain: ‘The Valley,’ and the Edwards Plateau: ‘The Hill Country.’ This unique combination of weather and topography produces consistently excellent soaring conditions.”

Mark Huffstutler managed the contest. Competition Director was Judge Hal Lattimore, assisted by Wally Scott, with Charlie Spratt running the gate, Sherman Griffith wrangling tow planes, Boots Scott organizing snacks and hospitality in the evenings, and Kerry Huffstutler learning all of the ropes. The first night, organizers hosted a Bar-B-Q for 225, with a Mariachi band; the West Germans had a ball. Three days later, German pilot Klaus Holighaus astonished all by flying 115 miles in his Ventus, without turning, from Kerrville to Callaghan Ranch, at a speed of 88.71 mph, the fastest individual speed for the race. Contestants and crew grew accustomed to his radio call, “Zulu Echo would like the middle runway. I am landing long with water.”

During Uvalde’s first national competition, pilots flew nine out of ten contest days, and the average course length approached 500 km. On Day 5, Wally Scott went up as sniffer and kept sniffing for 525 miles to Perrytown in the Panhandle.  Robbie Robertson, who claimed his registration had gone amiss and gained admittance on the basis of his Amber Sky Motel reservation form, was the U.S. winner. Skeptic Eric Mozer, now a convert, came in U.S. second.

As a Competition Director, Judge Lattimore generally favored the pilot option (P.O.S.T.) task. So, too, did winner Klaus Holighaus, who figured out early on that the trick was to be on a cloud street--and the longest street he could find. That street happened to be between Eagle Pass and Laredo, flying down the Rio Grande River. Making use of this street, which to this day pilots call “Holighausstrasse,” or “Holighaus Street,” Holighaus won the overall competition handily, and took to Europe the message of soaring weather in Texas.

In 1986, Kerry Huffstuttler was still a relative newcomer to competition soaring. One day, she was walking with veterans Leigh Zimmerman, Michelle Sorenson, and Brigitta Holighaus, when Leigh Zimmerman said, “If you think this is fun, you are going to love Standard.” So Mark and Kerry Huffstutler put in a bid for the Standard Class Nationals and ran the 1987 contest from Uvalde. Judge Hall Lattimore served again as Contest Director. Pilot Billy Hill later wrote of Lattimore, also the SSA President at the time, “Lattimore spends his evening crunching numbers, and his mornings computing soundings. Although he almost always wears his very best on-the-bench poker face, he’s like a duck on a pond—calm on the surface, and peddling like heck below water.”

Charlie Spratt, once again running the gate, had told everyone at Littlefield that Uvalde would offer “some of the best and most consistent soaring” they had ever seen. Forty-three pilots showed for the contest, which Hill wrote “could just as easily have been called ‘Chasing Klaus,’ as that is exactly what we did.” Holighaus, 2XX, won again, this time in his Discus. Thermaling on the way to Spoford, Mike Adams and Karl Striedieck struck each other, taking a chunk out of Striedieck’s wing. Striedieck radioed, “Someone check our planes for damage,” and both pilots kept flying.

By 1988, when Uvalde hosted the Open Class National, Uvalde’s reputation was cemented. Now a Uvalde oldtimer, Charlie Spratt wrote, “Say, ‘Uvalde, Texas’ to a competition pilot and visions of hard-bottomed cu’s and hundred-mile-cloudstreets will pop into his head. His hands will immediately go into classic positions as he describes high rates of climb and thousand-foot zooms. Uvalde has become one of our premier racing arenas.” According to Spratt, the first five days of the 1988 contest were “Uvalde grade,” with “consistent lift and strong afternoon streets.” And on Day Five, in the wake of a sea breeze front, every pilot but Bobby Bridges landed out. By the end of the contest, pilots Ray Gimmey and Ron Tabery had speeds inching into the low 90s (Ken Sorenson won, flying a handicapped Ventus). The Huffstuttlers ran this race, with Mark serving as Contest Director and Kerry as Contest Manager.

In 1989, Uvalde hosted the return of the 15-meter Nationals. Wally Scott had just made his fourteenth 1000 km flight, and Texas was in a severe year-long drought. Pilots were ready for another strong, consistent Uvalde competition.

Day One of the 1989 contest brought six inches of rain. Contest Director Huffstutler cancelled the contest day, for only the second time in six years of racing. If the first day was atypical, the ninth day brought some characteristic Uvalde weather: a sea breeze front. “It can be very exciting flying,” said Wally Scott. “Sea breeze fronts can move at incursion speeds exceeding 50 mph. The windy leading edge produces a wall of dust, strong lift and showers. The air behind them is windy, clear and stable. If you have to fly more than a short distance behind the front, you could be forced down.”  Pilot Roy Cundiff recalled, “This was a typical Uvalde day with an ocean breeze. When that happens, it gets real spooky at the southeastern turnpoints. Behind them, the cloud bases drop several thousand feet and if there is a lift, it’s real scratchy.” This front arrived early in the task, and more than thirty pilots landed out. During the eight-day course of the contest, over 1,800 miles of flying, there were nearly 100 landouts but no major damage.

Writing for Soaring, Alan K. Reeter declared, “It was the consummate test of pilot judgment and skill. . . The Uvalde weather machine showed us everything it had, from the fastest to the slowest day.”

But Uvalde wasn’t all about weather. “The people of Uvalde went all out to make pilots and crews feel welcome,” wrote Reeter, “from the Chamber of Commerce to the Mexican restaurant that hung balsa wood gliders from ceiling. . .The Huffstutlers, (Boots) Scott and the people of Uvalde set an example of how to make a contest fun.”

And then something extraordinary happened. In the fall of 1990, a mere six years after Mark Huffstutler and Ron Tabery had launched their first contest at Uvalde, Huffstutler told Tabery: “Keep this quiet, but the Worlds might come to Uvalde.”

It was not the first time Texas had hosted a world championship. Texas was known for record-breaking soaring. Texan Dick Johnson held the world record for distance flying even before Al Parker made the first ever 1000k out of Odessa in 1961, a record that stood until Wally Scott and Ben Greene ran the record up to 720 miles in 1968, flying out of the same airport.

It made sense that the first time the United States ever hosted a World Glider Championship, it would be in Texas. In 1970, the little town of Marfa, Texas, hosted the Twelfth World Soaring Championship, at the Presidio County Airport. Twenty-six countries sent pilots to Texas:  thirty-nine Open Class, and forty-three Standard Class, for a total of eighty-two sailplanes.

The airfield was an abandoned bomber training field. Organizers constructed shades from telephone poles and two-by-six lumber, covered with corrugated galvanized steel. World pilots found the conditions intimidating. One pilot was overheard to say, “I flew all day without looking down. Afraid to.” Soaring icons flew that race. George Moffat from the U.S. won the Open Class in the original Nimbus, with Hans-Werner Grosse coming in second, flying an ASW-12, with an 18.3 meter span. In Standard Class, Helmut Reichmann won in an LS-1, Gerhard Waibel came in sixth in the ASW-15; former World Champion A.J. Smith was seventh, flying an LS-1.

The next World Championship that the United States hosted was hosted in Hobbs, New Mexico, in 1983. Competition Director was Fort Worth native Judge Hal Latiimore—who, during the contest, also presided at South African Granville Dunbar’s wedding. The wedding party had to step across the border to a roadside park in Texas, where Lattimore had jurisdiction. More than half of the tasking at this competition was in Texas. Of the weather, Denmark’s Jan Andersen said, “They won’t believe that day after day we are reaching speeds of 125 kph or better. That’s faster than our national record.” Australia’s Ingo Renner took the lead in the Open Class on Day 1 and never relinquished it. Stig Oye of Finland claimed the Standard Class championship, and Kees Musters from the Netherlands took the 15-Meter Class. George Moffat, flying a Nimbus 3, was fourth in Open Class, while Dick Butler, flying an early ASW-22X, was seventh. Tom Beltz and Eric Mozer in the LS-4a finished second and fifth in Standard Class. In 15-Meter, Karl Striedieck claimed second Ray Gimmey tenth, both in AS-W 20B. The United States was the only team with all of its pilots finishing in the top ten.

When the International Gliding Commission next decided to hold a World Championship in the United States, the SSA looked to Minden, Nevada, which had a strong reputation--several spectacular flights had been made from that site. When the SSA got the bid for the 1991 World event, Minden was its top choice and hosted the 1990 pre-world contest. But problems ensued. Mark Huffstutler remembers being at a regional competition in Uvalde when reports began to filter in from Minden. Understandably—to everyone but glider pilots--the airport manager favored firefighters over gliders. Fire-fighting missions flying out of the Minden airport delayed launches and restricted flying time. Pilots and crew had to pull planes as far as a mile to get to the runway. There were many days when the airport shut down completely.

But the World Championship had been awarded to the SSA, not to Minden, and the SSA began to look for another site. “What about bringing the Worlds to Uvalde?” Huffstutler asked Eric Mozer, and Mozer replied, “Give it a shot.” Huffstutler plied the SSA Board of Directors with information. He and the Chair of the Uvalde Chamber of Commerce flew to Sacramento to present their ideas. “If you bring the contest to Uvalde, you will have full run of the airport,” Huffstutler told the board.  “We will dedicate that airport to you.” Although it was late in the game, the board was interested. “They found our approach refreshing and exciting,” says Huffstutler. The site selection committee—Bernald Smith, Hannes Linke, Eric Mozer, and Judge Hal Lattimore—visited Uvalde. And in January of 1991, the word became official: the Worlds were indeed coming to Uvalde. Bernald Smith would be Director of Championships, Hannes Linke would be Competition Director, and Mark Huffstutler Contest Manager. Weathermen would be Walt Rogers and Dan Gudgel. Charlie Sprat would run the gate, and Kerry would be running nearly every other aspect of the contest, which meant that most of the time, she was literally running.

At the time, Mark and Kerry Huffstutler had attended just one World Competition, for a brief time only and with no notion of hosting one themselves. Says Kerry Huffstutler, “If I’d had any idea we’d be doing it next, I’d have taken some notes.”  And in the fall of 1990, rather than preparing for a world competition, the Huffstutlers had been planning their next 15-meter National competition for the summer of 1991. They had to shift gears quickly. “It worked in our favor that we didn’t have much time to plan for it,” says Mark Huffstutler. “We had to be spontaneous, off the cuff. We had no idea what a world championship should look like. We had no pre-conceived notions.”

The Huffstutlers pulled together a core Team Uvalde and met with the Uvalde Chamber of Commerce, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Uvalde Leader News, and local businesses, with this message: we committed to this event, and we need to know that you are going to help us make this happen. Jim and Terri Link became integral, with Terri serving as Housing Director, finding housing for 119 pilots from 26 countries. In the end, Link had secured 194 hotel rooms, 114 dorm rooms at Southwest Texas Junior College, and rooms in many private homes. Jim Link solicited corporate sponsorships from Wal-Mart, Anheuser-Busch, Buick, Coca-Cola, Southwestern Bell, Econo-Car Rental Agency, HEB, Eagle Snacks, and Pioneer Flour. During the months leading up to the contest, the Uvalde Leader News ran articles on the sport of soaring, defining terminology and making sure everyone was informed.

Involvement went beyond the official and corporate levels. Not wanting to overextend and overtax the Uvalde organization at the last minute, SSA Executive Vice President Larry Sanderson told them: don’t do anything special--just do this contest like you do the Nationals. But Uvalde saw it differently. Says Kerry Huffstutler, “We had a town that took it on and took it over. Every team was adopted by an individual business that flew its team flag from their place of business. There were parties every night, because individuals in Uvalde would take on teams and hold events for them. It grew into a culture of social inclusion—making sure everybody was included in and part of some Uvalde event every night.” The flags of 23 countries flew at the Rexall Drug Store.

In retrospect, Kerry Huffstutler says, lacking any world experience, they simply tried to make the contest one that they themselves would like. “Our philosophy was: this is a vacation. We need to make sure people enjoy themselves.” Uvalde hospitality began at the airport, where Team Uvalde created an environment few who were there can forget.  There was a circus tent on the field with a bar—a Cantina—where there was food and beer every day. President Willy Word of Southwest Texas Junior College rearranged the summer class schedule to open dormitories, cafeteria, and swimming pool for contest personnel. In a darkroom at the Junior College, under the supervision of Chip King, a whole team worked all night every night developing flight verification photos. Word has it that some of the best parties of the contest took place in those all-night sessions.

The Huffstutlers hosted both a pre- and a post-contest party for over 600 at their house. Says Kerry Huffstutler, “There was not enough food in the world to feed those people. But we never ran out of beer.” The Purple Sage dance hall hosted a Pre-Competition Dance and Barbeque. On Opening Day, there was a parade featuring pilots marching in team formation with children carrying their flags. The Color Guard from Laughlin Air Force Base marched along with bands, floats, horses, and the “Texas Train of Beauties,” featuring Miss Texas and other beauty queens. Afterwards, downtown Uvalde held a “Taste of Texas Festival,” including a Texas gunfight, and Trick Roper Kevin Fitzpatrick.

Opening ceremonies themselves were held at the Garner Field Airport, from which 1300 launches took place over the next two weeks. Pilots flew a full twelve days for a total of 422,699 miles. The sky was, in Chuck O’Mahoney’s words, “postcard quality Texas.” So was the weather, reaching 104 degrees on Day Five. When a sea breeze front on Day Seven stranded a total of 75 pilots, former World Champion Stig Oye of Finland landed in a smooth grassy field and kept on skidding right into a stock tank. Not until ten the morning of the next day did his crew find him, but Oye launched and flew to a fifth place finish.

“It’s amazing how creative international pilots were and what kind of situations they could get themselves into,” remembers Kerry Huffstutler. “When you are from a different country, you read the ground differently. They put themselves into some places that were hard to get out of.”

On Day Four of the contest, pilots Atushi Kodama of Japan and Anissi Passila of Finland collided mid-air, and Passila perished. The entire competition took a day off and held a memorial service, during which the Japanese pilot prostrated himself in a full Japanese apology. Kerry Huffstutler handled all the arrangements, including getting both the pilot and his sister back home. It was one of several life milestones that took place during the race. The chief towpilot had a baby in the middle of the contest. Belgian pilot Patrick Steuse went home for the birth of his baby and then returned to the contest. “Dago,” Chris Christolf ended up marrying Joy Linkenhoger, and the two ended up had a baby exactly nine months later. “People made lifelong friendships,” says Kerry Huffstutler. Uvalde became a caliber of competition known throughout the world.

If hospitality and having fun was philosophy number one of Team Uvalde, fiscal responsibility was rule number two. “From the beginning,” says Kerry Huffstutler, “we decided we were going to run the contest like a business.” Mark Huffstutler says, “When we were setting up the organization, I approached it from a project management position, as a for-profit venture. We thought of everything as a profit center. We wanted money in the bank and no debt.” Team Uvalde drew up a budget with projected income, projected expenses, and began working on getting more money coming in than going out. Jim Link not only secured corporate sponsorships, he brought concessionaires to the airport, each of whom gave a portion of their revenue to the contest in return for the privilege of being there. It was Link who set up the giant circus tent, with long tables for communal eating and food from Tex-Mex, to Bar-B-Que, to desserts and cotton candy. Bars served beer and soft drinks.The Uvalde World Gliding Competition made a profit of $156,000, which it returned to the Soaring Society of America. It is hard to imagine a single contest, event, or contribution that has had a greater impact on the SSA.

The WGC chooses contest sites based on weather and terrain, and there has been good weather at many different world sites. But little to compare with the back-to-back, boringly good cumulus soaring that Uvalde has come up with time and time again. “There were contests going on all around us—in Marfa, Midland, Lubbock, Hobbs. But nobody had explored this part of southwest Texas till Ron Tabery came along,” ventures Mark Huffstutler.   “Without Ron’s keen eye and his love of soaring--and that first regional--none of this would have happened.” To which Tabery responds, “I just threw a contest up on the board, and it stuck.” But momentum alone cannot explain the success of Uvalde as a competition site. In the 1980s, Uvalde was a small community, starved for outside entertainment and eager to support it. There were airport facilities appropriate to a contest, as well as nearby meeting rooms and dormitories. Finally, in Uvalde was a team of exceptionally talented mangers and operations folk who didn’t even know they would become a team when it all began. If luck is the intersection of preparedness and opportunity, Uvalde is a lucky choice—the perfect intersection of a welcoming community, a good airfield, astonishingly capable management, and exceptionally boring weather.

1991 World Gliding Championship U.S. Team

Open Class: Ray Gimmey and Tom Knauff

Standard: John Byrd, Eric Mozer, Bruce Dyson

15-Meter: Karl Striedieck Doug Jacobs

Team captains: Jim and Jacquie Payne

 

1991 World Soaring Championship Results

Open Class

  1. Janusz Centka, ASW-22B
  2. Holger Back, Nimbus 3
  3. Gerard Lherm, Nimbus 4
  4. Klaus Holighaus, Nimbus

Standard Class

  1. Baer Selen, Discus
  2. Janusz Trzeciak, SZD-55-1
  3. Eric Mozer, Discus A
  4. Jacques Aboulin, ASW-24

15-Meter Class

  1. Brad Edwards, LS-6B
  2. Gilbert Gerbaud, LS-6C
  3. Doug Jacobs, LS-6B
  4. Robert Prat, LS-6C

For the 2012 World Championship, Linda Murray is Championship Manager, assisted by Kerry Huffstutler and Diane Black Nixon. Ken Sorenson is Championship Director, John Good Task Director, and David Coggins Flight Operations Director. Leo Buckley will be Chief Scorer, and 1991 veterans Walt Rogers and Dan Gudgel will be Meteorologists. Dick Bradley is Chief Steward. For more information, see www.wgc2012uvalde.com.

2012 World Gliding Championship U.S. Team

Open Class: Ron Tabery and Dick Butler

18-meter: Bill Elliott and Gary Ittner

15-Meter: John Seaborn and Dave Leonard

Team Captain: Dennis Linnekin

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  2 comments for “Why Uvalde? Why, Indeed!

  1. Ben
    August 2, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Exceptional! Thanks for posting it again.

  2. Frauke Elber
    August 5, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks for telling the Uvalde story. Hobbs too was a “fill in” after Argentina backed out due to their Falkland war. The organizers in Hobbs had even less time to put a World Championship together. They did a great job too.

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