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.
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.
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.