Sunday, July 22, 2012

July 19 Climbin’ In The Rain: This is the last day. Truly

Two days after Jonny’s record flight, and following a day of further heavy thunderstorms over the first one hundred fifty miles of the course, he and I took one last desperate attempt at our respective personal goals.  Jonny was going for Dustin’s distance record, while I had created a new distance goal just beyond Sterling City in an attempt to reclaim that record.

After the previous day’s heavy rains I was very doubtful, but the well-streeted early clouds looked excellent, so Jonny and I launched. He got off at 10:05, and I followed at 10:25.  Sure enough, it was pretty easy all the way toLaredo where things began to overdevelop and become difficult.  It was obvious that the previous day’s rain had had its effect.  There was a fabulous looking cloud street running straight up 83, but it was vastly overdeveloped and with poor lift beneath it.  Eventually it began raining ahead and behind me and I found myself climbing with a golden eagle in light rain.  He left as the rain became heavier, while I stayed in the improving lift.  It was extraordinary.  I wound up climbing to my maximum altitude of 5,500 msl at 300 fpm in pouring rain.  It was kind of spooky as with the wet wing the glider felt like it was at the edge of stalling.  And in the profound shade beneath the now enormous cloud my rain spattered, dark sunglasses greatly restricted my vision.  It was though I was climbing in an immense, gloomy wet cavern.  Nearing cloud base and wary of being sucked into the cloud, I glided north and finally escaped the rain.  But the general deterioration of the sky eventually put me down at Catarina (ninety eight miles).  It was a fairly good flight, if no record, but still a better end to the campaign than the previous effort.

Jonny too suffered through the rain and crap conditions at the end, executing a series of very low saves, including an extraordinary one from a measured 251 feet above the ground.  It is testimony to the ferocious concentration and will that lie behind his and Dustin’s flying success.  They simply do not give up.  In the end, he landed a few minutes after me at Crystal City for one hundred twenty four miles. 

Escape To Big Spring

The following morning was filled with departure preparations.  Gary and Christine were to remain in Zapata for a possible flight with his Woodstock ultra-light sailplane, but the rest of us were going.  Tim loaded up his little Cessna 150 to within two pounds of its gross weight for the flight to Big Springs, site of the US Nationals which were to begin in a couple of days.  Bobby Bailey readied the Dragonfly for the long ferry flight by strapping on an assortment of auxiliary tanks. Finally, I picked up Jonny in Laredo after he had dropped off his rental car, and we together began the drive.  Our task was to shadow the Dragonfly’s flight path so that we could assist in the event Bobby experienced problems. 

And, sure enough, the Dragonfly’s engine was running badly after refueling at Uvalde so Jonny and I had to procure a new fuel filter and deliver it to the airport.  After the plane had been repaired and departed for Big Spring, Jonny and I had a chance to look over an Apache attack helicopter on the ramp, and chat with its crew. The airfield was also full of sailplanes that will be participating in the forthcoming World Championship. 

Arriving in Big Spring that evening, a page was turned.  Before beginning the much longer drive back to Pennsylvania I was re-united for a couple of days with room mate David Glover, the organizer of the US Nationals, while Jonny went to the hangar to set up his glider for the next episode in his endless summer of hang gliding.  

Zapata 2012 is finished.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Whimper After The Big Bang

July 4: Forecasts Are Worthless v.1
On the day after the record day, the Fourth of July, there were no hang gliding fireworks.  Only Glen Volk and I launched on what was forecast to be an excellent day, however the forecast was once again wrong.  We were both hoping to redeem ourselves for the previous day’s missed opportunity.  But Glen, who launched early and aggressively under a sketchy sky only made it past Laredo before landing.  It was a good effort under the circumstances, but he was kicking himself for landing just as the clouds had finally turned on up there.  

I on the other hand, simply had no heart for scrabbling low across the damned mesquite and landed upon reaching the paved San Ignacio road in order to enjoy an easy retrieve. 
Dustin launching on big record day.
July 5  Forecasts Are Worthless v.2:  But Glen Goes Far Against The Odds

On a still less promising day, Glen again is aggressive about leaving, and this time he survives the early tough going that quickly put Jonny, Glauco and me on the ground.  Like the previous day, the clouds only started later and in the vicinity of Laredo after which he moved well, trying to break the 325 mile distance to goal record by flying to Sterling City of 359 miles.  However, in the end the lack of a strong tailwind meant that he came up short, going “only” 296 miles.  It was a helluva flight considering the tough early conditions and the weak tailwind.  And with that, he was gone from Zapata.  After landing Mike picked him up and took him to an airport from which he departed home to San Diego.  

As mentioned above, all three of the other pilots who launched decked it soon after releasing from tow, although Jonny at least had the skill to get as far as the first paved road before landing.  Glauco and I had excellent, extended tows to the east from Russell Brown, however their very length put us into poor retrieve situations when we found no lift after releasing from tow.  Glauco was rescued by a local rancher who was kind enough to drive him out to the highway before then escorting his driver Miro in through the land of locked gates.  On the other hand, David Glover got to me behind a locked gate by using a ring of keys given us years ago by the former Sheriff of Zapata County.  That worthy and helpful gentleman’s law enforcement career had concluded with a long stretch in a federal penitentiary for, let us say, irregularities in the performance of his duties.  Ah, Zapata.

July 6: My Last Zapata Flight v.2: A Recreational 200 Miler For The Soul

With Russell our tug pilot being scheduled to leave in a couple of days, and with the following day’s forecast being even less promising, Jonny, Glauco and I all took one last shot at having a good flight.  Jonny in particular was intent on setting the distance-to-goal record by flying to Sterling City, and all three declared it as our goal.  However, I simply needed a good flight, and not necessarily a record flight, so I deliberately chose not to launch until very late, 1:05, about two and a half hours after Jonny and two hours after Glauco.

Preparing to go.
As a result of my late launch I had a fairly relaxed trip up to Laredo, but around the city I became frustrated by my inability to get very high.  On the radio I could hear Glauco and Jonny ninety miles ahead of me and getting ridiculously high in strong thermals while I was having trouble getting much above 4,000 ft. It was maddening, but suddenly my next thermal became a rocket that broke through whatever cap there had been, getting me to 9,500 feet.  It was a bizarre, but most welcome change, and from that point on I had an effortless, beautifully cool transition up US 83 towards Uvalde and the Highway 55 route into the Hill Country.  For this my “last” flight I was for once going to attempt the conventional route through the wilderness.   And thinking that it was to be my last flight in the area I experienced a melancholy nostalgia while taking note of the familiar landmarks that dot the strange landscape over which I have flown for ten years.  I know the first two hundred miles north of Zapata at least as well as I know the area behind my regularly flown home sites. 

But before I got to Uvalde the easy ride came to a screeching halt.  My last climb had only gotten me to 7,500 feet, but that reduced altitude should still have been enough to easily get me to the next cloud.  However the cloud dissipated as I glided beneath it, and I arrived under the following one only eight hundred feet above a recently harvested corn field.  I pretty quickly began to climb, but it took a while to find the strongest core, and when I did it was unlike anything I have experienced before.  

When first arriving over the field I had seen a thermal swirling in the freshly cut corn field, but then lost sight of it and continued climbing when suddenly I saw a veritable blizzard of corn leaves climbing and then enveloping me.  It was as though I were within a snow storm, but a violently turbulent one.  It became so spooky that I left the powerful core for weaker, but safer lift on the periphery.  Eventually the lift all gathered together into a more moderate, but still leafy thermal that got me back up to nearly 7,000 msl (6,300 agl).  Leaving that thermal I glided for Uvalde to join a wonderful convergence cloud-street that began above the city and continued northwest above Highway 55 into the Hill Country.  It was now six thirty in the evening, however, above the city of Uvalde I climbed to cloud base at 600 fpm and then simply followed the street for twenty three miles until it (and all clouds) ended.  

High above the Hill Country.
As I began the inevitable final glide from 8,500 feet, I spent some time taking pictures of the Hill Country in the evening light.  It was incredibly peaceful now with all lift gone and virtually no wind as I picked a nice open landing field where I had a perfect zero-wind landing as David pulled up with my car.  As I carried the glider across the field I remarked on how sodden it was.  Only after looking around for the non-existent irrigation equipment did I understand why the clouds and lift had ended so early on this day: heavy rains from evening thunderstorms on the preceding day had drenched the countryside.  

Oh, yes, after telling David of the wild corn-leaf thermal experience, and showing him the one leaf that I had found in flight, wrapped around one of the glider’s wires, he noticed that there were two more leaf bits stuck to the glider.

Corn Leaf Souviner
It had been a wonderful flight, 196 miles in a bit over six and a half hours.  I had really needed some sort of pleasure after the previous day’s humiliation.  The only distressing part of the flight was the too-late realization that I have been a pig headed idiot all of these years by only flying the risky/difficult western route up to the plateau.  The route along 55 to Rock Springs is so vastly easier and safer than what I had been doing.

One interesting feature of the flight was that I got to monitor Jonny Durand’s attempt to break my distance-to-goal record.  He landed shortly after me, having gone three hundred twenty five miles.  It was a fabulous flight considering the light tailwinds, but my record had survived for at least another day. 

To round out the day’s flying, Glauco had also had a good day, landing about five miles beyond me along 55.  He, however, had less luck with his choice of field.  It proved to have a slight tailwind that carried him to the far end of the field where he flared into the bushes to come to a halt.  He was uninjured and the glider only slightly damaged.  

By the time my glider was on the car, Glauco had been picked up by Miro and we all stopped off in Camp Wood at the Boots and Buckles bar for a quick beer and some red neck Texas culture.  We had intended to have a bite to eat, however the combination of cigarette smoke and loud country karaoke soon drove us out.  But not before the Brazilians got a taste of cowboy America, and an odd coincidence.  An old rancher with a cowboy hat roped David into helping him finish a game of pool while we drank our beers.  When David explained our presence in town, the old guy told David, “Hell, I just let some hang glider pilot clear some brush on my land so he could jump off”.   Somewhat skeptically, David asked for a name, to which he replied, “Sam Kellner”, an old flying friend of ours from nearby Leakey, TX.  Small world.

At the Boots and Buckle in Camp Wood, TX.
Final Glide Out of Zapata

Two days after that last flight David and I hustled out of Zapata for the twelve hour drive back to Oklahoma City.  After entrusting David to Jayne’s tender mercies I began the long drive northwest to Salida, Colorado and Jim and Amy Zeiset’s Refuge For Aimless Hang Glider Pilots.  It took two days to get there as I visited a couple of regional museums in Amarillo and Dalhart, Texas.  But with crossing the Texas-New Mexico border at Texline, I was finally free of Texas’ malign gravitational influence.  Arriving at their ranch that evening I had finally escaped the twilight zone that is Zapata.  I was at 7,000 feet amidst a beautiful, cool landscape without a whiff of refried beans in the air.  Free at last, free at last, praise god I’m free at last.

…Or was I?  

This Prisoner’s Dilemma

For two days I decompressed in Salida, daily going down to my favorite cafĂ© restaurant on the river, where I wrote an article on the record flights in Zapata while eating non-Mexican food and enjoying the fact that these young waitresses were anything but fat.  I should have been happy, but strangely wasn’t.  Re-living the flights for the article, I was gnawed by the missed opportunity, and craving another, just one more, shot at a good day.  This uneasy craving was further fueled by the knowledge that while our tug pilot Russell had gone home, Jonny’s manufacturer-boss, Bill Moyes, still wanted him to get his one last shot at beating Dustin’s new record which had been set on a rival Wills Wing glider, not a Moyes.  So Bill arranged for Bobby Bailey (designer of the Dragonfly tug behind which we are towed) to fly out from his Florida lair at the first hint of returning good conditions.  And then my phone call to Gary Osoba assured me that the traditional Zapata weather system was, dear me, re-setting.

And thus was baited the hook.

Downloading the big flights.
But if there was again going to be a tow plane and pilot in Zapata, I still lacked a driver.  However, before I even dared call David to enquire as to his availability, I mentioned to JZ that I might head back to Zapata to which he responded, “I’ll drive for you”.   I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t even have to ask.  Jim runs an enormously time consuming business, and at the moment his presence is virtually indispensable.  I expressed my reservations about taking him away from that, but he quickly said he could make arrangements for his absence.  All he needed was to be back in Salida for a wedding on Thursday, a time constraint easily handled because he would be flying to Zapata in his fast twin-engine airplane.  This was quite a concession on his part as the last time he had flown that plane to Texas he had been arrested.  (But that’s another long story, and it was all a misunderstanding having to do with the plane’s earlier life in the field of pharmaceutical importation)

So, with a tug pilot in Zapata, and a driver to meet me there, the hook was well and truly set.  The following morning I began the twelve hundred mile drive back to that god forsaken waste land.  

Back Into The Twilight Zone

As faithful readers surely know, that could not be the end to this story.  After all, this is about Zapata.  After driving 950 miles that first day, I spent the night nearby in Del Rio (250 miles is nothing to drive in Texas) so as to arrive at the airport in time to pick up Jim.  But soon after beginning the short drive I saw a message on my phone from JZ informing me that Gary had called to warn him that the weather had, again, dammit, changed for the worse.  There would be no record conditions for several more days.

Not again.

It was too late to turn back, so, now with no immediate prospect of a driver, I continued on to my regular Room 25 at the Lakefront Lodge.  It is awfully empty without David.  

Another Record IS Set, But Again Not By Me

So, there we were, back in Zapata.  Everyone else had also fled the town for some rest and recreation.  Gary, Christine and Tim had gone to San Antonio, Jonny to his girlfriend in Alabama, while Davis and Belinda went to their beloved Austin.  Only the latter two chose not to return, Davis feeling the forecasts were too iffy to warrant leaving that most civilized of Texas towns.  

After one day of not flying, a semi-promising day was forecast, but in the early morning I was dubious about the high clouds I saw out the window and was therefore a bit slow to get to the airport.  That was a mistake.  I arrived at ten, and Jonny was already in the air, with Bobby Bailey giving him a very long tow ten miles to the east of the airport.  The objective of that long tow was to get Jonny closer to the morning clouds setting up out there under an otherwise mediocre sky.  

That was the beginning of a very long, ultimately world record flight of 369 miles to his declared goal of Sterling, TX, a flight that broke Mike Barber’s and my jointly held ten year old record.  It was a bittersweet moment for me.  I enormously admire Jonny and am astonished by the fact that the flight was his third 300+ mile flight in two weeks, when to my knowledge no other pilot has ever gotten even two of them.  But for me it is a reminder of how my time has passed, and that a new generation of pilots is simply much better than I am.  It makes one feel old, particularly when my effort on this day merely got me up to Laredo for forty miles.  

My later launch had trapped me beneath even thicker cirrus than that which had made Jonny’s first fifty miles so difficult.  I found I could survive relatively easily, but with the fairly strong winds and the lift averaging only 97 fpm I could never work eastward enough to get around Laredo airport.  But at least I had a driver as Gary Osoba and Christine were kind enough to chase me, managing to be present when I landed next to Hwy. 359 at the edge of Laredo’s airspace. 

Jonny’s Record Flight To Sterling City, TX

A definitive account of his flight will have to await Jonny’s return later today to Zapata and the downloading of his flight recorder.  But from a phone conversation with him last night, the flight was a struggle for quite a long time, even after he had gotten beyond Laredo and escaped the cirrus cloud cover.  He apparently did not climb much over 5,000 feet until he was over a hundred miles on course.  After that he soon found himself entering the Hill Country west of Uvalde where he encountered frightening turbulence that he attributed to the sharp thermals produced above wet ground that had seen considerable recent rain.  I imagine that the fairly strong winds flowing over the hills also played a role.  Whatever the cause, Jonny was concerned enough about the risk of tumbling in the turbulence that he nearly landed.  

Jonny Durand ready to go.
But instead of landing he persisted, getting up onto the plateau where he found fabulous cloud streets that allowed him to make very rapid time, in contrast to the flight’s slow early struggles.  As he approached the goal of Sterling City it was only seven o’clock and he still had sufficient daylight in which to attempt to break Dustin’s new absolute distance record.  There was as much as two and a half hours of flight time available to him; the cloud streets were solid, and he was moving remarkably fast.  The record might well have fallen had he continued.  However, Jonny had a pressing need to land as soon as possible.  No, it was not a urinary issue.  Jonny’s two vitally important data recording devices, a Garmin gps and his Flytec 6030, almost simultaneously began giving him low battery alerts!  After his previous long flights Jonny had not thought it necessary to replace the batteries in them, and now he was in very real danger of not being able to validate his record flight.  It was imperative for him to land before they both failed.  Fortunately, he did get down in time, but it was close enough that the Garmin actually shut down immediately after he landed.  And to make the day complete, Jonny’s driver was once again there minutes later.    

It was another fabulous flight by a marvelous pilot.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Chronicle, Part 2 - Big Day

An Interlude

The weather did indeed begin a fairly rapid return to what passes for Zapata-normal, but it took a couple of days for the warm wind to remove the astonishing amounts of rain we had received.  Fortunately, during that interlude the town’s vast recreational opportunities provided ample scope for our frustrated energies.  Alcohol played a prominent role: Jonny spent an evening schooling locals in the art of shooting pool under the influence of margaritas, while others gathered at the pool to discuss metaphysics and the meaning of life.

And we were joined by two more members of the Church of First Thermal Redeemer, the excellent Dustin Martin and the similarly skilled Brazilian Andre Wolf.  The similarities further extended to their retrieve arrangements: they had none.  Andre had gone to the expense and trouble of getting himself and a glider to Zapata without securing the single most crucial piece of equipment for Zapata flying, a driver.  A good driver.  Dustin on the hand had a driver of sorts, however with the qualification that the driver actually lives in Junction, some 250 miles north of Zapata.  In other words, for him to be of any real use Dustin had to fly a very long way out of Zapata.  The Junction driver wasn’t going to be of much help if he decked it in the infamous first fifty miles north of Zapata. But Dustin’s excellence is in good measure based on his self confidence, and as we shall see that self confidence is justified.

July 3, 2012  THE DAY

Let me be clear.  It was not my day, but it sure as hell was THE Day. 

After the pause in flying, I was, I admit, slightly skeptical of the first day as the forecast maximum temperature was a bit cool for my taste, and scraping the top surface soil showed moist ground beneath.  Consequently I reasoned that the morning conditions might prove to be a bit weak, a conclusion bolstered by the rather sketchy looking morning clouds.

But Dustin Martin curtly dismissed my cloud comment and hustled his glider out to the runway, eager to be off.  He wanted to start as early as possible on a day that promised essentially perfect wind conditions, as well as cumulus clouds extending all the way up into Texas’ panhandle.  If he could survive the weak early conditions until things turned on more solidly after noon he would already be some sixty or seventy miles on course, with the rest of the day ahead of him to speed up and make serious miles.    Accepting Dustin’s reasoning were Jonny Durand, who launched immediately after him, Glen Volk and Glauco.  Davis and I were both a bit skeptical of launching early, and in Davis’ case his wariness was bolstered by the fact that he was flying his performance-limited Falcon which requires more consistent lift conditions to have a hope of surviving.  Finally, Andre Wolf, sick as a dog and without a driver, chose not to fly.

We’re Off

Dustin launched first at about 10:10 in the morning with me going at 10:50 and Davis bringing up the rear a bit past eleven.  By the time I launched it had become apparent from the earlier pilots’ radio transmissions that there was abundant lift despite the somewhat disorganized clouds, and in any event the clouds were rapidly improving in character and altitude. 

For the first thirty five miles I had little trouble, moving rapidly, staying out of trouble and remaining on a good line to get past Laredo’s Class D airspace.  However, just as I was getting comfortable with the now good looking and well-streeted clouds I came under a cloud that had no lift.  Gliding further I found a climb under the next cloud, but it too deteriorated.  This was the first of three successive crummy climbs that didn’t bet me very high, and was putting me at risk of busting the Laredo airspace invalidating any record I might achieve.

On the radio I heard how the others were doing, and with the sad exception of Glauco they were doing fabulously well.  Glauco had landed after experiencing a vg problem with his glider, but the others were screaming along with an average 23mph tailwind.  Once past Laredo I too began an extremely easy run up to Carrizo Springs at the 110 mile point.  Cloud base was above 6,000 msl, and it slowly increased to 7,500 msl as I approached the Hill Country.  Climb rates too were good, averaging roughly 400-500 fpm during this phase.

I was feeling quite confident of being able to make my Sterling City goal (369 miles) due to the wind, climb rates and increasing cloud bases.  Unfortunately, I now committed what in retrospect was a terrible navigational decision to follow my traditional, risky downwind route through the wilderness. 

This is the route Mike Barber and I flew in 2002 for our records, and because it worked so well that time, I have persisted over all these years in repeating it.  This was despite the fact that almost every single other pilot has taken the safer route up Highway 55.  That route offers a corridor through the worst of the Hill Country, providing safe landing fields and an easy retrieve almost to the base of the escarpment of the Edwards Plateau.   But I was so bloody sure that it was more efficient to just fly straight downwind, safe landing fields be damned, that I had repeated that route.  Sometimes it was successful, and sometimes I merely scared myself before landing somewhere in the wilderness.

So off I went, feeling cocky about my decision while I heard Glen repeatedly asking for advice about how to fly the normal route.  Hell, I knew where I was going: downwind.  But then the clouds began to undermine my confidence.  The clouds were no longer forming easy to follow cloud streets, and I was now deviating laterally in order to glide to individual clouds along corridors with landing fields.  So much for my plan to efficiently blow downwind.  And as I got lower going into the first rocky country I was having to stop and work garbage thermals in order to at least drift safely across increasingly unpleasant terrain.  To add to my anxiety, the lower the altitude at which I caught a thermal, the worse was the turbulence being generated by the strong winds flowing over the hilly terrain. 

I was not happy, but as I got up onto the plateau (2,500 msl) things began to improve.  Approaching the rim I got to over 6,500 msl after which I glided under a street going my way.   I now climbed all the way to cloud base at 8,000 feet and began zooming along beneath it.  I thought I was now truly established for the last half of the flight.  But it soon became obvious that my street was overdeveloping and becoming a huge sun umbrella for the countryside ahead of me.  The shading of the country side temporarily shut down the thermals, and that was the end of my story.  I glided out from that huge cloud into the shadow ahead.  My descent was interrupted only briefly interrupted by one tiny patch of zero-sink as I went straight to the ground, landing next to Highway 277 amidst a wilderness of trees and cactus.  I was crushed by the extraordinarily rapid end to my hopes and dreams. For ten years I had been looking for a day like this, and after surviving my risky course and feeling fat and happy at 8,300 msl I was on the ground twenty minutes later.  And I had to listen to Dustin and Jonny racing towards sunset.  

Records Fall

Enough whining.  I wasn’t the only one to suffer the indignity of landing on this magical day, Glen too landed up on the escarpment a bit before me, and for a slightly longer distance.

But what you really want to hear is how Dustin and Jonny did it.  I have already submitted an article to Hang and Paragliding magazine, so here you will get a slightly abbreviated version of it.

As I wrote above, Dustin and Jonny launched early in the day; with Dustin about seven miles in front.  Dustin’s boldness (remember he had no driver) netted him a quick descent and snake-chasing episode down at 878 feet above the mesquite.  He soon found weak climb, but it was an hour into his flight before he was solidly above 2,500 feet agl (over the ground).  On the other hand, Jonny had an easier start, only once going slightly below 1500 agl. 

After their basic survival had been assured, their next concern was getting around Laredo’s airspace.  This was not a trivial problem, one perhaps worsened by their early starts and the mediocre early clouds.  Jonny passed by fairly easily, but Dustin was close enough that later there were questions as to whether he’d busted Laredo’s airspace. He was legal, but like me he was within a mile of the boundary. 

After Laredo they were quite close together, with Jonny just behind Dustin as they raced along. They enjoyed a fabulous tailwind under clouds that steadily rose to 6,000 msl and then gradually went up to about 7,500 msl as they began to enter the Hill Country.  At about the 110 mile mark near Carrizo Springs Jonny had caught Dustin, and for about the next 240 miles they flew within sight of one another, often in the same thermal.  One interesting feature of this period of the flight is that the barograms show that if anything Jonny was playing it safer and Dustin pushing harder.  He was generally the lower of the two when finding the next thermal.  Interestingly, however, that characteristic changed during the last part of the flight.  Starting at five o’clock Dustin’s barogram looks very much like Jonny’s.  Indeed, from seven o’clock onward Dustin was generally the higher one.

They remained close together until the 360 mile mark at Sterling City, after which Dustin got out in front by as much as five miles.  But that separation merely served to set-up the dramatic moment at which they re-connected. At eight o’clock Jonny was gliding and hitting some light lift when directly in front of him at almost his altitude there was Dustin, climbing in the thermal.  That they would re-connect is not so unusual, however, it occurred at almost exactly the point at which they were both breaking Manfred Ruhmer’s official 435 mile distance record (and Mike Barber’s unofficial 438 mile record).  Even more astonishing is that Jonny caught the moment on his GO Pro video camera.

After that the two of them never again separated.  This was the end game to determine which one of them would break the record.  It involved their working a series of weak little lift patches as the clouds evaporated around them.  They rarely really climbed, and the final outcome was the result of a little patch of lift in which Dustin got a bit over 300 feet above Jonny.  That was the margin that separated them as they began their final glides.  With the 23 mph tailwind their glides over ground were amazing. Dustin experienced a 17.2 mile,  33:1 final glide that gained him the world record by landing 475 miles from Zapata, and three miles beyond Jonny.   They had both been in the air for eleven hours, with Dustin landing exactly at sunset, 8:59.   

Jonny’s driver Tim Ettridge arrived only minutes after he landed, and they then went on to pick up Dustin, still without an official driver.   After spending the night in nearby Lubbock they returned to Zapata in a high speed drive that actually took longer than their flights of the preceding day had.  What fabulous flights they were.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Too Stupid To Stop

By Pete Lehmann

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For those  readers who followed my blog of last year’s misadventures in Zapata, the garden spot of south Texas, may recall that I concluded the blog with a heartfelt announcement that, yes, it really, really was my last visit to that personal Calvary.

Well, I was misquoted.  The author misunderstood my indecisive nature, inability to come up with a creative alternative summer activity, and general susceptibility to historical inertia.  Plus, David Glover acted as a narcotic enabler by expressing a willingness to again drive for this, the really, truly, absolutely last Zapata campaign.  I think.

The Omens, Auguries and Portents

So, you ask, what are the prospects for good flying this year?  If my approach journey is to be any indication, I should have turned around at the Illinois line and headed to the beach.  My intention had been to stop and fly at a number of sites along the way in order to get myself into some semblance of flying shape, making-up for an almost complete lack of flying in the prior two months.  I especially needed to accumulate some time on my stiff-handling T2 hang glider, both to hone my skills in light conditions as well as to get myself fit.  I had not flown anything but my toy-like Sport2 glider in the recent past due to a rather nasty leg injury suffered in a bicycle accident.  I had since been riding the bicycle to maintain some fitness, but riding a bicycle is poor physical preparation for flying the T2 for flights as long as eleven hours. 

My intended first flying stop had been Enjoy Field in northeastern Illinois, the site from which Kris Gryzb had recently flown some astonishingly long flights.  But the day I arrived there it stormed and rained so badly that I was wading in ankle deep water.  That boded poorly for flying the next day so I continued on to Arkansas.   There the winds were again unsuitable for flying so I killed a couple of days touristing in Little Rock (visiting the excellent Bill Clinton library/museum), and Hot Springs, a slightly down-at- the-heel old mineral springs spa town with a delightfully seedy past.  Indeed, it was the very literal model for the Mob’s development of Las Vegas.  

Finally giving up on flying in Arkansas, I decided to see if I might add a new site to my logbook, Mt. Buffalo in remote southeastern Oklahoma.  Arriving late in the afternoon I met Ron Kohn, the one resident paraglider pilot who was kind enough to accompany me up the hill and help me launch for a pleasant evening flight.   The reason for making the late flight was that the subsequent days were once again going to be un-flyable so I had to take what flying presented it self.  

Next morning I left for Oklahoma City to pick up David for the long drive to Zapata.  But evil spirits were abroad in the air.  Davis Straub and Gary Osoba, the dark and light, yin and yang of Zapata's meteorological prognosticators, began an email duel of conflicting forecasts centering on a low pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico. That depression quickly became a named tropical storm, and soon after was upgraded to Hurricane Debby.  This was not good news.  As Mike Barber would say, “I have seen this movie”.  And it did not turn out well.

But Debby was merely flirting with us and passed off to the northeast to inconvenience other parts of the south.  However, while she brought us no rain, her cyclonic winds disrupted the normal wind patterns of southern Texas for about a week.  In plain English, the Zapata weather was utterly unsuitable for our intended long flights into northern Texas.  As a result, David and I stayed in Oklahoma City for a few entertaining days before finally heading southward.  We drove almost seven hundred miles in twelve hours to arrive in Zapata just as the weather was forecast to return to normal.

We’re Baaack
We arrived at our opulent traditional digs in the Lakefront Lodge to find the World Record Encampment’s ring master Gary Osoba and his lovely wife Christine already in residence.  Perpetuating a bizarre domestic ritual, they are celebrating their first anniversary at the site of last year’s honeymoon in what is surely Texas’ least romantic bridal suite.  One should point out that Gary and Christine departed Zapata last year in a two-place sailplane en route to setting an unofficial US two-place record, flying six hundred miles in eleven hours before landing at Amarillo.  Recognizing that last year’s tortuous flight may have strained their young marriage, Gary this year wisely brought only a single-seat Jonker JS-1 glider with which to attempt a record flight.  

The Usual Suspects 
Already in Zapata, in addition to the faithful Russell Brown and the Dragonfly Tug with which he is to tow us into the air, we found Glauco Pinto, an excellent Brazilian pilot who back home already has a 250 mile (400 km) flight to his credit.  As his driver Miro had not yet arrived, and with the contrary winds, Glauco had confined his flying to local tasks intended to get him fit for the long flights to come.  In fact, Glauco will be the only “new” member of our dysfunctional flying family.  Every one of the others who has or will arrive is an excellent cross-country pilot who has been here at least once, several having set records here.  Of course Glen Volk’s record was not a flying one.  Rather, he set the record for the shortest stay in Zapata.  He was once here for a mere eight hours before bad weather drove him out of town and back to California with his tail between his legs.  But I digress.  Others already here or soon to arrive include some of the world’s truly elite hang glider pilots: Australia’s Jonny Durand,, the Ameri-Scot Robin Hamilton, Dustin Martin, and the Brazilian Andre Wolf.  It is a remarkable group, and if the weather improves (as does seem likely) Manfred Ruhmer’s (and Mike Barber’s) absolute hang gliding distance records might finally fall after enduring for a decade.

Flying, Finally

Day 1

The day after arriving I went to Zapata County Airport, the site from which we fly, to set up my glider in the hangar and then go for a short flight with Glauco. I flew for only half an hour before being flushed back to the airport, while Glauco flew for so long that Miro and Russell were assuming he’d landed out in the desert.  But he hadn’t, gliding back into the airport shortly before sundown.  I hadn’t really been disappointed by my short flight, even though discovered that I was badly overheated and had allowed myself to become seriously dehydrated.  It was a good lesson, and I was pleased to have set up all of my gear, verified that the harness was packed correctly, and gotten the first tows under my belt.  

Day 2

I was again only intent on a local training flight and launched late in the day ahead of Glauco, the newly arrived Jonny Durand, and Gary in the beautiful new JS-1 glider.  We all flew around the neighborhood for 1.5-2 hours, getting to a deliciously cool 9,000 feet.  It was an absolutely beautiful evening, with big fat clouds producing easy lift in which I could practice taking pictures with my new camera.  Far below me I watched Gary in the JS-1 moving around like a sleekly glinting predatory fish as he hunted thermals.  I flew ten miles south into the headwind before recognizing that the sea breeze from the ninety-mile distant Gulf of Mexico was pushing inland and killing the clouds as it approached.  That indicated it was a good time to turn around and head back to the airport.  

Arriving at 1,500 feet above the field I stumbled into a late thermal in which I took a few turns just for practice.  But upon leaving the “thermal” I quickly realized that it wasn’t a thermal, but an enormous area of rising air that was being pushed up by the inflowing Gulf airmass.  It took me almost fifteen (somewhat anxious) minutes to slowly descend through the lifting, turbulent air while watching the mesquite trees below being violently whipped by the sea breeze.  I wasn’t at all happy at this novel turn of events, but managed a perfect landing.  However, it was windy enough that I needed Christine’s assistance to get the glider into the hangar, a favor I later returned to Glauco when he landed in the by then slightly more moderate wind.

Day 3: Some Leave The Nest

Davis Straub, the meteorological prince of darkness,  had arrived the day before, and he now joined us at the hangar for another practice day.  The day had begun with the first hints that the weather was truly beginning to turn in our favor.  Upon walking out of our room it was immediately apparent that the wind was now blowing in from the Gulf.  The air was humid, and the early morning “over-running” clouds were beginning to form at 8 am.  As is customary, the early clouds sent a charge of electricity through the flock of Zapata communicants, and we all quickly repaired to our coven at the hangar, busily attaching instruments, picking distant goals (Jonny chose Big Spring, TX (about 390 miles) and I Garden City (369 miles).  But as soon as we were ready to go it became apparent that the winds were far too light for records, and in addition the early clouds became quite sparse, further dampening Davis’ and my enthusiasm.  He is flying an easy handling, but very low-performance single-surface glider as he’s not fully recovered from shoulder surgery.  And I have no further need to go flying over the nasty retrieval country unless a very good flight is in prospect.  So both Davis and I decided to let Jonny and Glauco fly first.  Jonny has only limited experience flying north and getting around Laredo’s airspace, while Glauco has never attempted it at all so they both wanted to experience the route.  After that they might choose to continue further depending on how the day developed.  In the event, they both got around the Laredo airspace with no trouble, however the winds were so light that Jonny soon decided to land along US 83 after seventy five miles.  He landed well, but only after being unsettled by watching the erratic flag movement at the Border Patrol control point on 83.  A tailwind landing with a 3,500 foot density altitude is no laughing matter.  But he pulled it off perfectly, as one can see clip.  

Meanwhile, Glauco had continued north towards his day’s goal of Uvalde, about 165 miles north of Zapata.  Unfortunately his ground speed was so slow (and Miro’s first northern hemispherical retrieval drive was not going well) so Glauco decided to land next to 83 at Crystal City, 125 miles out.  And then he waited three hours before Miro got to him.  It seems that he had first started driving northeast from Laredo on I-35; not north on US 83.  And then when he received Glauco’s lat/lon coordinates from the SPOT satellite tracker he put them into the Nuvi navigator using the wrong hemispherical letters, eg South of the equator rather than North of it.  It is safe to say that Glauco’s true location was not in the Indian Ocean.  To cap their retrieval nightmare they then stopped in Carrizo Springs for dinner on a Friday night.  The only got out of there two hours later and finally arrived in Zapata at 1am.    

Back at Zapata, Davis and I launched with the intention of getting some exercise around the airport.  Davis toyed with the idea of flying along US 83 up to Laredo to avoid the hellish retrieves, but soon landed back at the airport after not getting very high.  I hung around the airport for two and a half hours, eventually getting to cloud base at almost 6,000 feet.  However, it had not been easy and I had to pull off two low saves (373 feet and 495 feet) to keep flying until I decided to land in switchy wind conditions similar to what Jonny had experienced.  Still, it was good practice and I am now feeling very comfortable with the glider. 

Day Four: One More Communicant For The Church Of First Thermal Redeemer, And It Is Jonah…

The previous night we had been joined for dinner by Glen Volk and his driver Mike Degtoff.  In keeping with their elevated social status they are staying in an actual motel; not the infamous Lakefront Lodge.  Consequently we had to meet on the neutral ground of El Rincon restaurant where, as we were leaving, Glen asked David “If he’d gotten the locked-gate situation sorted out”?  It took David several minutes to stop laughing at the question’s absurdity, and we’re still not sure it wasn’t a joke.  You see, in this part of Texas there are heaps of dirt roads in the bush above which we fly, but all too many of them are barred by locked gates.  It is simply an ugly feature of flying around here: locked-gate roulette.  Are you feeling lucky today, punk?  Well, today Glen apparently rolled the cylinder, and left the airport heading north.  But after ten miles and upon reaching the first, un-gated road, he chose to take a left and land along it rather than continue into the unfriendly territory beyond.  This place is truly intimidating.  

Davis had another short flight on his Falcon, while Gary Osoba took up the sailplane as the storm clouds built around the airport and lightning was already hitting the ground.  As the storm cells grew together Gary determined that discretion was the better part of valor, and landed in time to get the glider into the hangar just as the first, but not last, raindrops fell.

And to conclude today’s report I am grieved to report that Glen/Jonah’s arrival has brought with it a monstrous, toad-stranglin’ rain storm that has thoroughly soaked the surrounding countryside.  In technically precise meteorological terms, we are screwed for the next several days.  

Yes, once again the weather is resetting… 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

THE END: Nine Years of Mesquite, Hurricanes, and, All Too Seldom, Fabulous Flying

   Everyone else is gone and I am sitting with a beer looking out at Falcon Lake (Come for the jet-skiing, stay for the funeral) contemplating the likely end of a bitter-sweet piece of personal history.  Nine years ago I first came to Zapata at David Glover’s urging.  My objective was to set a world record, ideally “the” world record, the sport’s absolute distance record.  Previously I had already invested five wonderful summers in Rock Springs,WY pursuing the record.  But in 2001 Manfred Ruhmer blew out Larry Tudor’s existing 308 mile record set from Rock Springs.  With that, I realized that it had become essentially impossible to break Manfred’s new 435 mile record in Rock Springs, and that if I were serious about record hunting I would have to go to Zapata to do it. 

So, the following year, 2002, I began what was to become an enduring love-hate relationship with this place; a relationship that began astonishingly well.  Within a week of arriving, Mike Barber and I had made a couple of quick “training” flights of 125 and 160 miles to get the lay of the land.  To round out a pleasant week’s flying we then jointly set the declared-distance-to-goal record of 321 miles.  Wisely, Mike kept going, flying 438 miles and informally breaking Manfred’s record.  Half an hour slower, and behind Mike, I opted to land at our declared goal of Big LakeTexas.  Before launching we had been assured that the day only rated a “5” on a scale of one to ten.  In the coming month we were sure to see another three or four days with conditions at least that good.  Assuming that this was an only moderately good Zapata day, I thought it would be the coolest damn thing to land my hang glider 321 miles away, at a point declared to be my destination nine hours before. 

Charlie Averitt
 It was indeed the finest thing I have ever accomplished.  Nonetheless, I have seldom regretted a decision as I do the one to land.  Nine years later only one other person has even come close to breaking Mike’s record, Dustin Martin who went 410 miles three years ago.  After our astonishing flights that year it began to rain.  It rained in an environment where Gary Osoba’s meteorological research indicated that we should experience essentially no rain during the months of our interest. But history be damned, it rained; rained hard and often.   Indeed an early hurricane put an end to that year’s campaign.

And so it has gone over the intervening years.  A changing cast of characters has rotated through Zapata flying a variety of gliders.  Many were world class competition pilots (Manfred, Mike Barber, Dustin, Alex Ploner, Jonny Durand, Bo Hagewood, and Paris Williams, to name some) while others were weekend warriors with dreams.  We flew a variety of gliders: flex wings, rigids, Falcons, and Swifts, and, briefly, paragliders.  Our guiding genius brought a succession of, first, ultralight sailplanes (which he kindly let me fly) and ultimately the uniquely heavy Gemini with which he set this year’s record.  For a short while we flirted with towing from a dirt strip built for us on a local banker’s property twenty miles northeast of the airport.  The objective was to give us a starting point further east to ease the basic early morning tactical problem of getting around Laredo’s airspace.  Several pilots set triangle records (itself an indication that the winds were too light to go for the big distance), and several Swift and sailplane records went down.  But the big conditions never returned in their entirety.

The Zapata Basics

Through it all there was several constants.  Perhaps obviously, there was the airport.  But much more importantly, there was, and is, Charlie Averitt the airport’s manager 
Russell Brown - Quest Air, Florida
and in a very real sense our host in Zapata.  The consummate aviator, Charlie has essentially placed his airport at our disposal for weeks at a time, allowing us to use his hangar for the tug and all manner of gliders that we’ve brought here.  His kindness and concern for our quixotic quest has been touching, and without him I am not sure the WRE would have either happened or endured.  Then there are the tugs and tug pilots.   First among equals is Russell Brown 
who has towed us for countless years, and provided tugs for the ones when he wasn’t here.  Steve Kroop for years also provided a tug (and was foolish enough to let me ferry it across four hundred miles of desert), while we had a host of excellent, indeed world class, tug pilots: Rhett Radford, Wiley, Bo Hagewood, and Armand. 

Another constant is Gary Osoba, whose extraordinary 
understanding of the macro-meteorological aspects of cross country soaring provided the insight which unlocked Zapata’s unique potential.  Ironically, the key to Zapata’s long distance potential lies in the consistent southerly wind that reaches from the Gulf of Mexico up into eastern Wyoming.  It is precisely that southerly air flow in Wyoming that had blocked our record attempts from Rock Springs, over eleven hundred miles away.  But I digress. 

Davis Straub -
Davis Straub too has been in Zapata every year.  He simply loves coming (although I am not sure the same can be said for Belinda) and he has accumulated a boatload of 
formal and informal records here.  Jokingly, I ascribe to Davis the role of dark counterpoint to Gary’s optimistic daily weather forecasts.  David Glover too has been here for the bulk of the campaign, filling a more amorphous role that combined driver, ringmaster and entertainment director. 

Just as tugs and pilots are essential, we simply could not fly over this country without dedicated and skilled drivers.  Some pilots have indeed come here without a personal driver, but they have often paid a terrible price for it in extremely long retrieves from extremely long flights.  No one has died, but there have been some near misses and horrible retrieves (Of course, there were good retrieves too: Rick Walker picked-up Jamie Shelden and her glider with a helicopter). Anyone who’s been serious about going far has been compelled to come up with a driver.  But even then, there are drivers, and there are drivers.  One infamous driver drove out some 250 miles, lost contact with her pilot and then drove home, leaving him out there on his own. 
Gary helping me launch.

However, I have been blessed with two extraordinarily good drivers who combined the necessary intelligence, technical skills, and devotion to guarantee that I would get picked up no matter where I landed.  Drew Holupka drove the most years (and had driven in Wyoming as well), and he had the worst of it.  He experienced the nastiest weather as well as the worst of the evil mesquite walk-out retrieves while I learned my piloting trade.  Once I became a better pilot, the bad retrieves diminished.  But Drew was there for the early ones.  Fortunately, Drew also experienced the finest of all retrieves: he was there within minutes when I landed at my Big Lake record goal, after which we drove on to pick up Mikey Barber at 438 miles.  Those are literally world record retrieves.

My other driver was and is David Glover.  In some respects it is nothing more than fitting that he got stuck driving for me as he is the individual who talked me into coming to Zapata in the first place.  And David has proven to be every bit as good as Drew.  However rooming with him is quite different as his tv watching tends towards Stephen Colbert and the Daily Show, while Drew and I watched the Tour de France and Maria Sharapova’s legs at Wimbledon.  They may differ in style, but I have been exceptionally lucky to have two such friends willing to help me strive for my life’s dream…as well as being willing to help hike out my glider in hundred degree temperatures.

Perhaps the most constant presence at the WRE has been the weather and our obsessive attention to it.  Perhaps better said, the weather has been the most inconstant presence.  Obviously, the historic weather patterns are the reason we have continued to come to Zapata, and also the basis for the extraordinary number of records set here.  But at the same time its maddeningly erratic behavior has provided the absolutely worst aspects of the Zapata experience.  We have literally seen the desert cactus bloom.  We have seen the prevailing winds reverse themselves, or simply stop blowing (good for triangle records, I concede). But we have all too seldom seen the weather provide all of the necessary constituent parts we require to set distance records.     

The enormous scale of what we are attempting requires an extraordinary number of individual weather features to be simultaneously present over a vast area.  We need morning Gulf moisture to produce the remarkably solid and reliable cloud streets that provide usable thermal conditions at 9:30 in the morning.  We need a southeasterly wind direction that on the one hand brings in the moist air, but one that is not too easterly and driving us into Mexico.  And that wind must continue for over five hundred miles with both a consistent direction and velocity.  We also need cumulus clouds that continue over the entire distance.  It is not enough that we have the morning overrunning clouds for a good start.  We need them to become conventional cumulus clouds towards noon, and then they must improve as we continue northward.  The climb rates must increase, and, critically, cloud base must continually rise for two reasons.  Until cloud base rises significantly above the mesquite country it is impossible to fly very fast.  Otherwise, we must fly too cautiously.  And once one has left the mesquite plains behind, one hundred and fifty miles from the start, it becomes essential that the clouds continue to rise as one gets up onto the Edwards Plateau.  For it is there, late in the day, that we can fly fastest.  High clouds coupled with high winds and the presence of evening convergence clouds allow one to move extraordinarily quickly in the final hours before landing.  Finally, this all must continue until half an hour past sunset, the legal limit of our latest landing time.  Mike Barber’s unofficial record flight took eleven hours, and he needed every damn minute of it.  I am occasionally still astonished by the audacity of what we attempt, and have achieved, here.      

Throwing Chicken Bones and Checking Chicken Entrails, or Weather Forecasting
If the weather itself has been a constant, so too has been our obsessive daily preoccupation with forecasts, short- and long-term.  I like to say that I just look out the window in the morning to see if the over-running is happening, but the truth is that Gary and Davis’ often contradictory insights are an invaluable part of my daily decision-making matrix. But sometimes I just have to walk away with fingers in my ears.


An early constant at the WRE was the presence of what we perhaps arrogantly referred to as tourists.   The dramatic early successes from Zapata created the misleading impression that it was “easy” to fly far from Zapata; that two hundred mile flights were low hanging fruit below mesquite trees.  This resulted in an early surge of interest in participation by good local club pilots.  During my first few years there were a considerable number of club pilots who had succumbed to the malign lure of Zapata.  Very, very few of them had particularly good flights; indeed many never really left the hangar, and some experienced only short flights and nightmarish retrieves.  WRE organizer Gary Osoba was placed in a quandary. On the one hand he needed a certain number of pilots to attend and help defray the considerable fixed costs of the project.  On the other hand, it would be irresponsible to invite the participation of individuals who at best would not have fun, and, at worst, would be at risk flying in this unforgiving environment.  In the end, stories of Zapata’s difficulties spread to deter the participation of almost all tourists.  However, while that was good for safety, it rendered the WRE finances tenuous.  There were years where little more than Davis, Robin Hamilton and I really flew.  Zapata is a place that requires a unique mix of skill, attitude and opportunity, and at the risk of being elitist, that combination is a rare commodity. 

The School of Zapata
I don't know why I'm smiling.
Finally, as I contemplate leaving Zapata, never to return, I am compelled to reflect upon its effect on me.  Simply put, the experience has made me a much better pilot.  Zapata’s principle limitation, the weak morning lift drifting across highly undesirable country, has taught me a patience and focus I never had before.  Zapata’s reliability has taught me that you simply don’t have to give up until your feet hit the ground (or until you’re going to have to land in the mesquite).  Zapata’s grand scale has allowed me to dream beyond previous boundaries.  Most pilots have difficulty imagining a flight of more than five miles beyond their present position.  Flying in Zapata teaches one to think not in tens, but hundreds of miles.  My longest flight this year was a bit short of two hundred miles; but that was little more than half of the day’s declared goal. Most pilots can’t imagine doing it, but that is precisely what is routinely attempted down here.  The scope of what we have attempted teaches patience on a grand scale.  An hour’s groveling low under a temporary cirrus deck is merely a brief interruption in a long flight.  It has given me something very special, the skills and outlook of a strategic pilot.  I see beyond the horizon, and believe I can get there.

The End
While the Zapata experience may be trying at times, it has nonetheless also provided me with the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything.  And, with all due respect to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is not 42.  It is,