Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zapata, Yet Again, For The Very Last Time

Zapata, Yet Again, For The Very Last Time - By Pete Lehmann

Well, here we are sitting in our luxury Lakefront Lodge accommodations watching lightning strike and rain fall.  Gary Osoba assures us that the parched countryside will quickly absorb the rain, and that conditions will “re-set” in time for Friday or Saturday to once again turn on.  Davis Straub too is demonstrating his flexibility in that he finally left Austin to come down here.  He had been pooh-poohing the generally good weather of the past couple of days, insisting that Wednesday, the rainy today, would be a big one.  But he began this morning by distributing a weather image implying that Friday is now the “new Wednesday”. As you can see, weather forecasting is an inexact science, and involves room for considerable self-deception.  I rather prefer to look out the window in the morning.  And it is raining.

This year’s trip to this Texas garden spot was uncharacteristically hurried after I learned that the clan was gathering in Zapata three days earlier than I had thought.  There was no time for my customary en route stops in Knoxville or Arkansas.  Instead, I immediately headed west on I-70 to Kansas City, and then south to Wichita to pick up some stuff from Gary’s house before ending up in Oklahoma City to abduct my driver David Glover.  The next morning we began the final twelve hour leg to Zapata, remarking as we went further south on the delightfully parched look of the countryside.  They were enduring drought conditions.  Oh joy; oh rapture.

In Zapata we found Gary, tug driver Russell Brown, Mike Barber and his girlfriend Fay, as well as Louie and Gita who are to drive for the five Brazilians who arrived a couple of days later.  Our first day in Zapata was spent settling in, absorbing the Zapata magic, checking equipment, programming gps’ and brushing up on our Spanish.  Not having been here for a couple of years we were confronted with some changes in the local landscape: the only decent restaurant had closed, as had the bowling alley.  More tragically, the one restaurant which had allowed me to bring in wine has changed its policy.

If in the intervening years Zapata itself has gained nothing in the way of charm, at least the airport is still an inviting destination complete with the wrought iron sign above the entrance advertising it as “Home of the World Record Encampment”.  Run by Charlie Averitt, the airport offers a neat, clean hangar in which to set up our toys.  By the time David and I got there Russell and Louie had set up the Tug, while Gary had assembled his unique side-by-side two-place Gemini glider, and Mike B his Lightspeed. I set up my glider while Russell was performing an FAA Annual Inspection of the Scout, an airplane owned by the wealthy local rancher and friend of the WRE, Rick Walker.  The Scout’s significance is two fold.  On the one hand it is Russell’s commuting vehicle for his daily trips to and from Rick’s ranch where he’s staying, but it will also be serving as the tow plane for Gary’s heavy glider, for which reason Russell is now installing a tow hook. 

The day after our arrival Mike and I decided to take an early whack at flying, egged on by Gary’s enthusiasm about the early morning convergence clouds that are the hallmark of Zapata flying.  Prior to our arrival there had been very little of this “over run” as it’s called.  The winds had been too southerly, bringing in none of the Gulf of Mexico moisture that is required for the formation of solid early clouds.  I was a bit dubious about Gary’s assessment, but figured it was time to get back on the Zapata horse and see what happened.  So, followed shortly by Mike, I launched at 9:25 in the friggin’ morning on what Gary says is the earliest “successful” xc ever from the site.  In fact, success is not the term I would have used as I landed only 15 miles away after a couple of weak climbs to 2,700agl.  But Mike, who’d broken a weak link in the nasty conditions early in his first tow, survived the difficult early period and made it up past Laredo before deciding to land after sixty miles.  Conditions were utterly blue, and he wasn’t going to get terribly far.  In any event, we’d both gotten our feet wet again, proved we could survive under the sketchy, early clouds, and we’d both been blessed with easy retrieves.  I had landed in the boonies, however at a giant ranch house where the Mexican grounds keeper got David in past the locked gate for me.  My fragmentary Spanish had again proved most useful.

But if I was dubious about the clouds on Monday, yesterday, Tuesday, dawned spectacularly.  The forecasts (that evil word again) had been unpromising, however Gary had been up very early and detected the “over-running” occurring.  He began texting before dawn, and by the time I finally looked out the window I began panicking as by 8:45 the clouds had already become spectacular and I was feeling as though we were late.  Throwing my stuff together David and I bailed out of the motel and arrived at the airport to find Mike getting ready to launch.  I launched soon after him, and Russell towed me two cloud streets east of the airport and I pinned off at cloud base, 3,500 msl, very high for 10:20 in the morning.  The street was solid and the clouds working well enough that Mike and I both had a pretty easy time traversing the land of locked gates, mesquite wilderness and airspace around Laredo.  However at the fifty mile point things became tougher.  The clouds overdeveloped, shading the ground and diminishing the climbs.  In addition, cloudbase remained stubbornly low, never getting over 4,000 agl as we headed north into some serious mesquite wilderness.  In the end, after three hours in the air I made it 86.9 miles, struggling desperately at low levels drifting over the mesquite from one landable road to another.  I finally decked it on a wide dirt road that was being heavily traveled by big construction trucks servicing the booming local gas developments.  With little altitude in hand, I planned my landing behind the last vehicle of a convoy headed south when I saw a new pickup truck headed north through my landing strip  Unfortunately, he saw me and then courteously stopped in the road right where I’d wanted to land.  I frantically waved at him and he moved forward giving me an uneventful landing on the road.  It was remarkably dusty, and I had to break down in the dust clouds raised by the constantly passing tractor trailers.  

Mike continued northward after waffling about wind directions before deciding to land at Crystal City for 125 miles.  Along the way he had a peculiarly Zapataesque worry to deal with.  His girlfriend and driver Fay is British, and while she has already had her application for a new visa status approved, her current visa is technically expired.  Unfortunately, the area over which we are flying is on the Mexican border and the area is the most heavily policed part of the US I have seen.  One element of the law enforcement presence is the existence of permanent (and temporary) internal Border Patrol stations, one of which is located on the US 83, the road we were following that day.  And, sure enough, their computer’s flagged Fay’s “expired” visa and the Border Patrol held her incommunicado for a while until her status was verified.  In the meantime, Mike was becoming concerned enough that he had briefly headed southward, intending to land with me, before Fay was set free to continue the chase.  I had been more fortunate as my silver-tongued, native-born Okie driver David talked his way past the border check despite having forgotten his driver’s license in the early morning rush.

To complete the day’s flying, BJ Herring, the excellent Colorado rigid wing pilot, had set-up his ATOS astonishingly quickly and launched shortly after me.   He wound up landing at six o’clock, 240 miles from Zapata up on the Edwards Escarpment, the 2,500 msl plateau that begins north of Uvalde.  It was an excellent flight, and one that looks that much better from this rainy vantage point.

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