Monday, July 04, 2011

Going Out With a Whimper and One Big Bang

The Blob above the bed.
Since last writing, the rains have come and gone…and come again.  And gone too are many of our inbred little family.  The first to depart were the Brazilians, followed by Robin Hamilton and his Swift heading for Luling where they were, I believe, again frustrated by the weather.  The Brazilian exit occurred in a suitably Zapataesque fashion.  Very early in the morning Moikano was awakened as the bunkhouse’s ceiling above him collapsed under the weight of accumulated rainwater, dumping gallons of water and ceiling material on him.  We really don’t make this stuff up. Adios, Zapata.

Gary’s Two-Place Record
Elsie - Pete's new friend.
Next to leave, in a rather more pleasantly exciting manner, were Gary and Christine Osoba.  On Saturday morning a manic Gary awoke to stir up the lethargic survivors of a night at Club de Belinda.  Running out of time, and seeing an opportunity to break the US two-place free distance sailplane record, he was frantically scurrying around trying to line up last minute arrangements to get the sailplane launched and (eventually) retrieved somewhere in far north Texas (Thanks Sam Kellner).

The Mesquite - It's Everywhere
As the previous days’ rains had drenched the first fifty miles of Gary’s proposed route north from Zapata, he planned to have Russell tow him as high as the NAA/FAI rules would allow.  After climbing past early cumies at 3,000 msl near the airport and releasing at 5,900 msl some 25 miles north of Zapata Gary glided north with the 42:1 glide and a tailwind.  This northerly release point was intended to enable him to glide beyond Laredo to a point where he could find lift under clouds over presumably dry land. So far, so good.  Unfortunately, upon descending below the northern clouds it was discovered that cloud base was only some 2,500 ft above the lovely mesquite.  And while there are quite a number of paved private airports strung out along the highway, it was an uncomfortably low maximum altitude in which to find oneself with a sixty foot wingspan sailplane.

Gemini on the Runway in Zapata.
However, conditions slowly improved as they approached the northern end of the plains..  Some one hundred fifty miles out from Zapata they entered the broken Hill Country (which rises to about 2,500 msl), and were still only barely getting to an uncomfortably low 5,000 msl as they drove into that intimidating wilderness.  Fortunately, altitudes increased in lock step with the rising terrain as they pushed uphill.  Once atop the Edwards Plateau conditions steadily improved, and then really turned on fifty miles southeast of Big Spring with climbs averaging about 700 fpm.  Finally getting high (eventually to 10,700msl), they had a fast run up to and past Lubbock towards Amarillo.  There at 6:45, after an excellent last climb averaging 670 fpm, things abruptly again became difficult.  The late day problem was extensive shadowing from high cunims blowing up to the west and northwest in Colorado.  From 10,600 msl he began an ultimately 50 mile long final glide.  At the end Gary found, but  abandoned, a weak final climb that was drifting them into the prohibited airspace over Amarillo’s Pantex nuclear weapons factory before landing just west of Panhandle, TX after over nine hours in the air.  The flight represents an unofficial new national record of some 597 miles from Zapata.   Congratulations are in order for a very nervy flight accomplished in mediocre conditions.  And particular congratulations are in order for Christine for enduring it. Gary reports that at some point she turned to him and said that “I ought to grab you and force you to go shopping for twelve hours”.   A bit extreme perhaps, but one understands the sentiment.

We Fly Again in Zapata

With Gary and Christine gone, we are now down to the hard core, or as Mike Barber says, those “too stupid to stop”: Davis, Mike and myself with our respective drivers and Russell to pull us up.  To emphasize our folly, we had once again been rained upon the previous night, and the radar had shown considerable precipitation north of the airport en route towards Laredo.  With that in mind we hesitantly went out to the airport with no great expectations.  But Zapata can also provide pleasant surprises, and cumulus clouds soon began to form and line up into the characteristic streets.  And despite my wariness, the clouds looked like they ought to have lift under them.  Russell then took up the tug, returning to report good lift below a cloud base already at 2,400 agl. 

With our gliders already set up in the hangar, it didn’t take us long to begin moving.  I followed a hyper Mikey out to the runway (temporarily stopping the flight ops of the local radio control model club’s gigantic 1/3 scale planes) and we quickly readied ourselves to go.  Just before eleven Mike launched, followed by me, while the performance challenged Davis eventually chose not to launch.  

Our near daily dining spot - The Steak House
Just as Russell had reported, the lift was surprisingly good, and cloud base was already a comfortable 2,900 agl when I pinned off tow.  With Mike in the lead we headed north under increasingly consistent clouds.  Consistent, that is, until I missed a couple of climbs and was down to 663 feet over the damn mesquite far from a friggin’ road.  After almost fifteen minutes of yo-yo scratching I finally began a solid climb to base.  Conditions then became pretty straightforward and, now well behind Mike, we both headed north along US 83 under the improving clouds.  With a light tailwind and the late start it was apparent we were not going to be setting any records, so after sixty-six miles Mike landed in a good lz and reported that to his surprise he had landed on his feet. 

Barogram of Pete's flight - low save early, below 700' for 15 minutes
Knowing that we are running out of time in this paradise, and not wanting to squander my good low save, I decided to keep going and see what would happen.  The winds were light, but the clouds were becoming increasingly good so I headed north for Uvalde, hoping to get past there to Leakey for about 200 miles.  In the end, after getting to 8,700 msl,, but with the clouds drying up I missed a final climb and landed in a beautiful field north of Uvalde for 165 miles (IGC file). The landing was a perfect one-stepper which was good because I had forgotten to bandage my leg before flying, and six hours of friction had rubbed the wound raw before gluing it to my shorts.  You can imagine what happened when I unzipped the harness and exercised my legs.    

David arrived within minutes, and after fetching dressings for the leg, we hurried back to Zapata, arriving in time get dinner at The Steak House, the semi-official WRE cafeteria. 

Pete with Ms. Pre-Teen Falcon Lake runner up

Independence Day, and Delusions of Freedom 
After the previous evening’s downpour, we today decided to bag flying, with Davis going one step further.  Unable to resist the lure of Austin nightlife, he broke down his glider and began preparations for departing for there tomorrow morning.  That will leave only Mike and me; and tug driver Russell will be leaving on Wednesday.  It would appear that we are about done for this year. 

But of course Faye, a retired 747 pilot, is also a rated tug pilot in what she refers to as our “flying lawn chairs”.  And Robin Hamilton has called to assure us that the weather really, truly is again resetting after the prolonged interruption occasioned by Tropical Storm Arlene.  All we need to do, he promises, is to hang on until the weekend when things will be back to what passes for normal in the twilight zone that is Zapata.

Stay tuned…the zombie lives.

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