Sunday, July 01, 2012

Too Stupid To Stop

By Pete Lehmann

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For those  readers who followed my blog of last year’s misadventures in Zapata, the garden spot of south Texas, may recall that I concluded the blog with a heartfelt announcement that, yes, it really, really was my last visit to that personal Calvary.

Well, I was misquoted.  The author misunderstood my indecisive nature, inability to come up with a creative alternative summer activity, and general susceptibility to historical inertia.  Plus, David Glover acted as a narcotic enabler by expressing a willingness to again drive for this, the really, truly, absolutely last Zapata campaign.  I think.

The Omens, Auguries and Portents

So, you ask, what are the prospects for good flying this year?  If my approach journey is to be any indication, I should have turned around at the Illinois line and headed to the beach.  My intention had been to stop and fly at a number of sites along the way in order to get myself into some semblance of flying shape, making-up for an almost complete lack of flying in the prior two months.  I especially needed to accumulate some time on my stiff-handling T2 hang glider, both to hone my skills in light conditions as well as to get myself fit.  I had not flown anything but my toy-like Sport2 glider in the recent past due to a rather nasty leg injury suffered in a bicycle accident.  I had since been riding the bicycle to maintain some fitness, but riding a bicycle is poor physical preparation for flying the T2 for flights as long as eleven hours. 

My intended first flying stop had been Enjoy Field in northeastern Illinois, the site from which Kris Gryzb had recently flown some astonishingly long flights.  But the day I arrived there it stormed and rained so badly that I was wading in ankle deep water.  That boded poorly for flying the next day so I continued on to Arkansas.   There the winds were again unsuitable for flying so I killed a couple of days touristing in Little Rock (visiting the excellent Bill Clinton library/museum), and Hot Springs, a slightly down-at- the-heel old mineral springs spa town with a delightfully seedy past.  Indeed, it was the very literal model for the Mob’s development of Las Vegas.  

Finally giving up on flying in Arkansas, I decided to see if I might add a new site to my logbook, Mt. Buffalo in remote southeastern Oklahoma.  Arriving late in the afternoon I met Ron Kohn, the one resident paraglider pilot who was kind enough to accompany me up the hill and help me launch for a pleasant evening flight.   The reason for making the late flight was that the subsequent days were once again going to be un-flyable so I had to take what flying presented it self.  

Next morning I left for Oklahoma City to pick up David for the long drive to Zapata.  But evil spirits were abroad in the air.  Davis Straub and Gary Osoba, the dark and light, yin and yang of Zapata's meteorological prognosticators, began an email duel of conflicting forecasts centering on a low pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico. That depression quickly became a named tropical storm, and soon after was upgraded to Hurricane Debby.  This was not good news.  As Mike Barber would say, “I have seen this movie”.  And it did not turn out well.

But Debby was merely flirting with us and passed off to the northeast to inconvenience other parts of the south.  However, while she brought us no rain, her cyclonic winds disrupted the normal wind patterns of southern Texas for about a week.  In plain English, the Zapata weather was utterly unsuitable for our intended long flights into northern Texas.  As a result, David and I stayed in Oklahoma City for a few entertaining days before finally heading southward.  We drove almost seven hundred miles in twelve hours to arrive in Zapata just as the weather was forecast to return to normal.

We’re Baaack
We arrived at our opulent traditional digs in the Lakefront Lodge to find the World Record Encampment’s ring master Gary Osoba and his lovely wife Christine already in residence.  Perpetuating a bizarre domestic ritual, they are celebrating their first anniversary at the site of last year’s honeymoon in what is surely Texas’ least romantic bridal suite.  One should point out that Gary and Christine departed Zapata last year in a two-place sailplane en route to setting an unofficial US two-place record, flying six hundred miles in eleven hours before landing at Amarillo.  Recognizing that last year’s tortuous flight may have strained their young marriage, Gary this year wisely brought only a single-seat Jonker JS-1 glider with which to attempt a record flight.  

The Usual Suspects 
Already in Zapata, in addition to the faithful Russell Brown and the Dragonfly Tug with which he is to tow us into the air, we found Glauco Pinto, an excellent Brazilian pilot who back home already has a 250 mile (400 km) flight to his credit.  As his driver Miro had not yet arrived, and with the contrary winds, Glauco had confined his flying to local tasks intended to get him fit for the long flights to come.  In fact, Glauco will be the only “new” member of our dysfunctional flying family.  Every one of the others who has or will arrive is an excellent cross-country pilot who has been here at least once, several having set records here.  Of course Glen Volk’s record was not a flying one.  Rather, he set the record for the shortest stay in Zapata.  He was once here for a mere eight hours before bad weather drove him out of town and back to California with his tail between his legs.  But I digress.  Others already here or soon to arrive include some of the world’s truly elite hang glider pilots: Australia’s Jonny Durand,, the Ameri-Scot Robin Hamilton, Dustin Martin, and the Brazilian Andre Wolf.  It is a remarkable group, and if the weather improves (as does seem likely) Manfred Ruhmer’s (and Mike Barber’s) absolute hang gliding distance records might finally fall after enduring for a decade.

Flying, Finally

Day 1

The day after arriving I went to Zapata County Airport, the site from which we fly, to set up my glider in the hangar and then go for a short flight with Glauco. I flew for only half an hour before being flushed back to the airport, while Glauco flew for so long that Miro and Russell were assuming he’d landed out in the desert.  But he hadn’t, gliding back into the airport shortly before sundown.  I hadn’t really been disappointed by my short flight, even though discovered that I was badly overheated and had allowed myself to become seriously dehydrated.  It was a good lesson, and I was pleased to have set up all of my gear, verified that the harness was packed correctly, and gotten the first tows under my belt.  

Day 2

I was again only intent on a local training flight and launched late in the day ahead of Glauco, the newly arrived Jonny Durand, and Gary in the beautiful new JS-1 glider.  We all flew around the neighborhood for 1.5-2 hours, getting to a deliciously cool 9,000 feet.  It was an absolutely beautiful evening, with big fat clouds producing easy lift in which I could practice taking pictures with my new camera.  Far below me I watched Gary in the JS-1 moving around like a sleekly glinting predatory fish as he hunted thermals.  I flew ten miles south into the headwind before recognizing that the sea breeze from the ninety-mile distant Gulf of Mexico was pushing inland and killing the clouds as it approached.  That indicated it was a good time to turn around and head back to the airport.  

Arriving at 1,500 feet above the field I stumbled into a late thermal in which I took a few turns just for practice.  But upon leaving the “thermal” I quickly realized that it wasn’t a thermal, but an enormous area of rising air that was being pushed up by the inflowing Gulf airmass.  It took me almost fifteen (somewhat anxious) minutes to slowly descend through the lifting, turbulent air while watching the mesquite trees below being violently whipped by the sea breeze.  I wasn’t at all happy at this novel turn of events, but managed a perfect landing.  However, it was windy enough that I needed Christine’s assistance to get the glider into the hangar, a favor I later returned to Glauco when he landed in the by then slightly more moderate wind.

Day 3: Some Leave The Nest

Davis Straub, the meteorological prince of darkness,  had arrived the day before, and he now joined us at the hangar for another practice day.  The day had begun with the first hints that the weather was truly beginning to turn in our favor.  Upon walking out of our room it was immediately apparent that the wind was now blowing in from the Gulf.  The air was humid, and the early morning “over-running” clouds were beginning to form at 8 am.  As is customary, the early clouds sent a charge of electricity through the flock of Zapata communicants, and we all quickly repaired to our coven at the hangar, busily attaching instruments, picking distant goals (Jonny chose Big Spring, TX (about 390 miles) and I Garden City (369 miles).  But as soon as we were ready to go it became apparent that the winds were far too light for records, and in addition the early clouds became quite sparse, further dampening Davis’ and my enthusiasm.  He is flying an easy handling, but very low-performance single-surface glider as he’s not fully recovered from shoulder surgery.  And I have no further need to go flying over the nasty retrieval country unless a very good flight is in prospect.  So both Davis and I decided to let Jonny and Glauco fly first.  Jonny has only limited experience flying north and getting around Laredo’s airspace, while Glauco has never attempted it at all so they both wanted to experience the route.  After that they might choose to continue further depending on how the day developed.  In the event, they both got around the Laredo airspace with no trouble, however the winds were so light that Jonny soon decided to land along US 83 after seventy five miles.  He landed well, but only after being unsettled by watching the erratic flag movement at the Border Patrol control point on 83.  A tailwind landing with a 3,500 foot density altitude is no laughing matter.  But he pulled it off perfectly, as one can see clip.  

Meanwhile, Glauco had continued north towards his day’s goal of Uvalde, about 165 miles north of Zapata.  Unfortunately his ground speed was so slow (and Miro’s first northern hemispherical retrieval drive was not going well) so Glauco decided to land next to 83 at Crystal City, 125 miles out.  And then he waited three hours before Miro got to him.  It seems that he had first started driving northeast from Laredo on I-35; not north on US 83.  And then when he received Glauco’s lat/lon coordinates from the SPOT satellite tracker he put them into the Nuvi navigator using the wrong hemispherical letters, eg South of the equator rather than North of it.  It is safe to say that Glauco’s true location was not in the Indian Ocean.  To cap their retrieval nightmare they then stopped in Carrizo Springs for dinner on a Friday night.  The only got out of there two hours later and finally arrived in Zapata at 1am.    

Back at Zapata, Davis and I launched with the intention of getting some exercise around the airport.  Davis toyed with the idea of flying along US 83 up to Laredo to avoid the hellish retrieves, but soon landed back at the airport after not getting very high.  I hung around the airport for two and a half hours, eventually getting to cloud base at almost 6,000 feet.  However, it had not been easy and I had to pull off two low saves (373 feet and 495 feet) to keep flying until I decided to land in switchy wind conditions similar to what Jonny had experienced.  Still, it was good practice and I am now feeling very comfortable with the glider. 

Day Four: One More Communicant For The Church Of First Thermal Redeemer, And It Is Jonah…

The previous night we had been joined for dinner by Glen Volk and his driver Mike Degtoff.  In keeping with their elevated social status they are staying in an actual motel; not the infamous Lakefront Lodge.  Consequently we had to meet on the neutral ground of El Rincon restaurant where, as we were leaving, Glen asked David “If he’d gotten the locked-gate situation sorted out”?  It took David several minutes to stop laughing at the question’s absurdity, and we’re still not sure it wasn’t a joke.  You see, in this part of Texas there are heaps of dirt roads in the bush above which we fly, but all too many of them are barred by locked gates.  It is simply an ugly feature of flying around here: locked-gate roulette.  Are you feeling lucky today, punk?  Well, today Glen apparently rolled the cylinder, and left the airport heading north.  But after ten miles and upon reaching the first, un-gated road, he chose to take a left and land along it rather than continue into the unfriendly territory beyond.  This place is truly intimidating.  

Davis had another short flight on his Falcon, while Gary Osoba took up the sailplane as the storm clouds built around the airport and lightning was already hitting the ground.  As the storm cells grew together Gary determined that discretion was the better part of valor, and landed in time to get the glider into the hangar just as the first, but not last, raindrops fell.

And to conclude today’s report I am grieved to report that Glen/Jonah’s arrival has brought with it a monstrous, toad-stranglin’ rain storm that has thoroughly soaked the surrounding countryside.  In technically precise meteorological terms, we are screwed for the next several days.  

Yes, once again the weather is resetting… 

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