The Sun Ship Game
2010 Big Sky Film Festival – Programmer's Choice Award winning The Sun Ship Game is an 82 minute DVD film by Robert Drew.
Flying hundreds of miles a day through wild weather with no engine requires feats of airmanship unprecedented in human history and known before only to the birds. Soaring birds are able to accomplish these feats through instincts developed over millions of years. A new strain of human being is able to make these flights through strenuous mental effort, calculation and sensational feel for the air.
George Moffat and Gleb Derujinsky are great pilots and good friends who compete in the sport of Soaring for speed and distance in aircraft without engines – sleek competition gliders. Both would like to win the 1969 U.S. Soaring Championship. The Sun Ship Game voyages through remarkable aerial photography with both pilots into the sky at a regional contest in Vermont and into wild weather with 83 other competitors in Marfa, Texas. Through eight days of hard flying in skies alternately filled with brilliant beauty and stormy violence, their two approaches arrive at a dramatic conclusion and one of them is named the U.S. Champion.
“Nothing remotely like it has ever before been attempted… No pilot watching the film could avoid sweaty palms.”
Allure and Challenges of Making the Film
Filmmaker Robert Drew’s first love was flying and making this film was a personal highlight for him. He wrote a short essay about the allure and challenges of making the film:
“It was not easy for other pilots to strike me with awe. I had met hundreds in a lifetime of flying – Texas, Europe, and the world – planes with big engines, small engines, multi engines, jet engines.
“The pilots who finally struck me with awe flew with no engine at all.
“George Moffat and Gleb Derujinksy were pilots of sleek aircraft that had no mechanical power. They were always falling through the air. Yet they could keep their ships aloft all day and soar high and hundreds of miles.
“How they could do that seemed to me amazing, miraculous, a great mystery. As I looked into this mystery I realized that the power to soar was in their cockpits. It was in their minds. And their engine was the sun, most powerfully, heart from the fierce Texas sun.
“Capturing that life, often transparent and invisible, was a challenging and beautiful achievement that combined intuition, calculation and sensational feeling. Derujinsky relies most on feel and creative impulse to sense his way through invisible air currents. Moffat does the same but relies more on a hand calculator he constantly works in the cockpit. One way or another, these pilots were keepers of a compelling mystery and masters of a wild domain most human beings could hardly imagine.
“Being human, Moffat and Derujinsky and pilots like them of course introduced human competition into the beauty of their soaring. They were vying with one another across the globe to see who could fly faster and farther, for championships of nations and of the world.
“Moffat and Derujinsky were about to clash in a regional contest in Vermont, leading to the national competition in Texas – 85 pilots soaring in wild air for the championship of the United States.
“For me this appeared an opportunity to make a film that would reveal that wild domain and look deeply into the beauty and humanity of its compelling mystery.
“The films I make are called Cinema Verite and require the camera to be with people through experiences wherever they might be. For this film I had to assemble a group of photoships carrying 16mm cameras loaded with color reversal film, stabilized by suspension mounts and gyro controlled lenses that would dampen vibrations from air that was always thunderously rough in the midst of a hot Texas day. The first photoship was a four–passenger Bill helicopter with a side door that would disappear to offer a wide view to an intrepid cameraman seated on the floor with his feet dangling out in the wind. The helicopter was good for circling thermals and recording gliders climbing and peeling out the top. But when gliders dived out on course they left the helicopter far behind. Then it was the turn of our Piper Cherokee 6 low winged monoplane, also with an open side and mounted cameras, which could keep up with the cruising gliders. For shooting within thermals we used a Schweitzer 232 as a photoship, with small cameras in the hands of a cameraman shooting through the canopy and an arriflex camera mounted in the nose triggered by the pilot, good also for shooting forced landings in Vermont. Finally, from time to time Derujinsky and Moffat triggered cameras installed to photograph in and from their cockpits. We had arriflexes with long lenses and special Drew Associates cameras modified for lightweight and silent operation for photographing people candidly on the ground. Managing all this were Mike Jackson, Anne Gilbert and Dan Drasin supported by Thatcher Drew and a crew of photographers headed by Peter Powell, Abbot Mills and Walter Helmuth.
“Because we were amply supplied with snake bit kits, we think, non of the many rattlers we saw and heard in eight days of Texas shooting bothered to strike.”
Review by Doug Jacobs
Former World and 8 time U.S. National Soaring Champion
If you're like me, The Sun Ship Game serves as the standard against which to measure all attempts to convey soaring in motion pictures. Centered on a remarkably determined George Moffat's pursuit of a National Championship on the way to multiple World Championships, it captures like none other the majesty of the slender wing and graceful vulnerability of glider against the big, big sky and heartstopping terrain of Marfa Texas. Yet even more compelling is its captivating story of eyeball to eyeball struggle between pilots to win, to excel against one another, to accept the tribulations, sacrifices and danger of this beautiful but little known sport despite its meager prizes.
Bob Drew, noted documentarian, pulled this triumph together in the early 1970's, capturing on film the amazing aerial footage never before seen of gliding competitions and blending it with an up close and personal window into the personalities and aspirations the pilot contenders, their families and friends, strengths and flaws, into an all–too–human montage of the soaring scene. The result was a classic that has inspired and motivated hundreds of soaring pilots of my generation.
However, inspired as we were, we were equally annoyed that well traveled films in the possession of the SSA were often scratched, patched and in generally poor quality. An attempt to save the work through converting it to VHS was only partially successful, but nonetheless cassettes were snapped up by collectors eager to have their own copy of this remarkable story.
Now comes deliverance – Bob has taken the original masters and professionally converted them to DVD format. Back is the amazing clarity and color quality of the original film and terrific sound (especially if you're a BeeGee's fan – break out the paisley!) of the original for you to savor without the distractions of failing media.
The chance to own and view this work should not be missed by any serious soaring pilot, and studied intensely by those who chose to compete. A masterful story, one that belongs in the collection of everyone that shares our devotion to this compelling and amazing sport.