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 café 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.  

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