Monday, June 27, 2011

Dropping in on Bunkie and other Texas Hospitality

Sunday June 26

Before recounting  Sunday’s efforts I must first provide an addendum to the previous day’s stories.  BJ Herring’s flight was in fact scored by the software at 187 miles after including the thirty mile dogleg to end the flight at Uvalde airport.  BJ’s early route had been northwestward, taking him well west of US 83 out into the some pretty sketchy retrieve country.  A very fine flight. 

On the other hand, we have one more Zapata retrieval story for the ages: apparently Eduardo got handcuffed .  When we gathered at the hangar for the day’s briefing from Gary, we first began with stories of yesterday’s retrieves.  Davis made the point that he didn’t actually have a gun pulled on him; the guy merely placed his hand on his weapon, errh, gun.  Eduardo, on the other hand, got the full treatment.  After having landed at a ranch and speaking good Spanish (many Brazilians also speak excellent Spanish) someone called the sheriff and Border Patrol to report that he had illegally crossed over from Mexico.  While still having a pleasant chat with the Hispanic ranch hands, five police and Border Patrol cars showed up to inquire if the FAA knew he had crossed the border.  In the ensuing misunderstanding, Eduardo was invited to turn around and offered the traditional American hospitality gift of handcuffs. Eventually one of the Border Patrol officers, who is also a helicopter pilot, clarified matters and Eduardo was allowed to go.

On to Sunday’s flying. 
Gary was greatly excited about the day: the wind would be good, and while the clouds were likely to dry up around the 150 mile mark he felt we would find a few enduring, high cloud lines along which one could continue for world record distances.

The morning sky that greeted us at the airport was truly excellent.  Both the configuration of the cloud streets, and their direction were perfect.  The wind was strong, the clouds promised to be reliable, and their alignment would make getting around Laredo easy.  They were at first a bit low, but our hero BJ took it upon himself to show the hesitant wimps that the clouds were already working when he launched around 10am.  Cloud base rose rapidly, and by the time Mike Barber went at 10:20 cloud base had already risen to over 2,500 agl.  Davis and I launched soon after, with Alex Trivelato following a bit later.  Excepting Davis on the single-surface glider, we all got past Laredo (50 miles) with little trouble.  The early 18-19 mph tailwinds were moving us along nicely, however while the clouds were reliable they never really got very high and the climb rates were at best moderate. 

By the time we reached the 100 mile mark at Catarina BJ, Mike and I were on world record paces until it became evident that the clouds were indeed drying up ahead of us.  Mike and BJ (and later Alex) heeded Gary’s radio-relayed advice to veer northward in an attempt to remain under the mythic convergence lines.  I on the other hand continued downwind to the northwest in pursuit of my declared goal destination of Garden City.  The drawback of that route is that it takes one across some truly evil hilly and often un-landable terrain.  I have successfully crossed it in the past without too much drama, however on those occasions I had reliable and considerably higher clouds to ease the passage.  But this time around the clouds had entirely evaporated by the time I got into the worst of it, so I had to very carefully maximize my blue altitude gains and drift into the wilderness high enough to ensure that I could saw and reach a safely landable spot.  I was surprised and disappointed to discover that the attainable altitudes didn’t go any higher as the terrain rose, thereby reducing my ground clearance precisely when I most needed it.

As I tiptoed my way through the bush a further concern was reaching a safe landing spot from which I could be retrieved.  Much of that country is divided up into fancy hunting camps which are largely unoccupied during the summer heat.  And they can be a long way off a road behind locked gates.  My climbs remained erratic, and despite what should have been the perfect late afternoon time of day they were not going any higher, indeed the last couple of climbs didn’t even go as high as the previous ones had gone.  I finally became stuck low over one of those luxury hunting camps, and while the swimming pool was inviting, I saw no signs of life and no easy way in.  Still having a bit of altitude in hand I wandered around hoping to find a ticket out, and eventually at 1,000 agl some birds showed me a violent thermal that climbed well while awakening my dormant tumble spooks.  Eventually the damn thing did mellow out, but only to completely die just high enough to allow a glide towards an inviting distant blacktop runway.  Reasoning that I should be able to get to a road from such a fancy airport, I hopped over there and was reassured to see a couple of cars in front of the main lodge.  I flew on a little further and after six hours and 195 miles I landed next to the immaculate 4,500 foot runway in strong, gusty conditions. 

Upon landing I determined I had zero cell coverage, and no radio contact with David.  Before landing I had given him my distance and bearing from Zapata, and by putting those numbers into the old Garmin 12 he should be able to get within a few miles of my location.  But establishing radio contact with me behind the hills and down in the Nueces River valley was going to be another matter.  And then there would likely be a locked gate to be dealt with.

 So after quickly breaking down I hiked with my harness in hundred-degree heat three-quarters of a mile to the main lodge hoping someone could help me out.  But after walking all around the buildings hollering “hello”, there was no reply.  I found a hose from which to drink water and sat down to cool off and rest my aching leg before beginning the two mile hike out to the road.  From there I hoped to establish cell or radio contact with David.  But just as I was beginning to stir for the hike, I heard a muffled “woof” behind me and turned to see a woman behind a glass door with a gigantic Great Dane.  She turned out to be the lodge’s caretaker during the hot months, and had been alarmed to see some guy with a big “duffle bag” (my harness).  She figured I was a Mexican drug runner and was concerned because she didn’t have her gun.  However when I turned around to reveal my decidedly gringo features she was immensely relieved, and became most hospitable.  In chatting with her I learned that the Pinon Ranch, as it’s named, is owned by the Dallas oil billionaire Hunt family who built the pristine, paved wilderness runway for them to jet in and shoot the furry critter whose heads liberally decorate the walls of the handsome main lodge.

After it became apparent that even their phones didn’t work, she offered to drive me out to the gate where there was cell coverage. At the first high spot on the road I got in touch with David who was miraculously close to the ranch’s gate after having traversed some thirty miles of bush roads trying to establish radio contact with me.  With my radioed information he had created a synthetic waypoint that proved to be within about two and half miles of me.  But while that is pretty good, I today decided to order a SPOT locator.  Having seen how well it works for Mike and the Brazilians I am persuaded it is the way to go for pilots flying in wilderness areas. 

After driving in to get my glider we then began the long drive back to Zapata, arriving home at 12:30 am, but not before a dubious dining experience in Carrizo Springs along the way.  The food wasn’t bad, but the service established a new low for the western world with a waiter who’s IQ could be measured in single digits.  Most unforgivably, he forgot my margarita.

The Others

BJ's 270 mile track across Texas, longest flight in US this year.
While I was attempting to solve my retrieval problems BJ was successfully continuing his quest to maintain a seven hour daily flight average.  He followed Gary’s advice and headed north past Uvalde and up US 83 into the Hill Country and beyond, getting some 270 miles despite the lighter winds and lack of clouds. He is my hero.  Alex and Mike too headed that way with Alex flying what I presume to be a personal best of about 250 miles, while Mike got 200 miles and a rather hairy, windy canyon landing that cost him a down tube.  The miracle of Alex’s flight is not the distance, but the fact that he got retrieved at all (by BJ and his driver, Dave).  He had neither a functioning radio nor a SPOT locator.  He’s bloody lucky.  This is not a place to be trifled with.

Finally, Davis on the single surface glider had a much harder time of it earlier, three times going down to 1,000 agl or less in his performance-challenged single-surface machine.  He ultimately landed east of Crystal City for 125 miles, or, as he’d prefer to say, 200 kilometers.  Earlier in the day I had been astonished at Davis’ rapid progress considering his glider’s performance limitations. And then it dawned on me: he was calling out distances in kilometers…

For those who have the necessary software and skill - Pete's igc file and Pete's Google Earth file of flight.

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