Zapata, Texas: 263 MILES (423 KM), 10 HOURS 38 MINUTES, ONE POP-TART, ONE WORLD RECORD. By: Will Gadd.
Every spring for the last five years I've gone in search of long-distance flying; I fly for adventure, and cross-country flying always provides plenty of it. In 1998 I flew 180 miles from Hobbs, NM, to near Bryce TX, for a world record, but Godfrey Wennes then flew farther in Australia. I've wanted the record back ever since. The next three springs in Hobbs had good flying (I flew 100+ miles so often that I started to feel like a trucker), but true world-record conditions just didn't happen. It was frustrating but also educational; flatland XC flying is extremely technical compared to my normal mountain flying sites, and the hundreds of hours of flatland flying I put in taught me to enjoy the subtleties of morning cloud flying and the crave the full-on power of mid-day dust-devil combat. Last spring I changed tactics and used a motorized Ozone Octane to fly across the US, perhaps the ultimate "cross-country" flight, but the desire for a world record distance flight came back stronger than ever this spring. Frustrated with Hobbs, I joined up with the Flytec World Record Encampment in Zapata to chase records and film a TV documentary on the whole process with a friend, Darryl Czuchra.
Zapata is a small town on the Texas/Mexico border; most people wouldn't go there for a holiday, it's hot, flat and every bit of vegetation has thorns while all the most common animals have fangs and venom. But the flying is very, very good, and the local people are very hospitable to the distance-obsessed pilots invading their town.
A few years ago meteorologist and ultralight sailplane pilot Gary Osoba looked all over the United States for a flying site with strong, consistent winds, good thermal potential and a long flying day-all important variables for world record flights. He chose Zapata, TX, and organized the Flytec Word Record Encampment with Davis Straub and David Glover. That year the world hang-gliding record was broken several times concluding in Manfred Ruhmer's 700K flight. Josh Cohn set a new distance to goal record of 200 miles on a paraglider, Kari Castle set the women's world distance record, David Glover set a new hang gliding distance to goal record and Davis Straub set a new world record for rigid wings. After this remarkable season it was clear that Zapata had tremendous potential for world record flights.
We arrived on the 14th of June, and the next day David Prentice and I flew over 150 miles in seven hours. On the 19th of June Louise Crandall and I flew 130 miles in six hours. On the 20th of June David flew his Ozone Proton GT 240 miles for a new world record. He launched at 11:00 in the morning and landed at 8:00. The same day Mike Barber flew his hang glider farther than anybody ever had, just missing an official world record by less than a mile (you have to exceed the old record by one percent). That day was epic; the clouds formed early, the wind blew hard out of the south and many people had long flights. Unfortunately, I had some problems mainly due to my own lack of organization and never left the tow field. I actually developed heat exhaustion waiting for the tow line; the temperature was over 100 degrees, and dressed in all my kit I rapidly dehydrated and fell apart mentally. I was frustrated with myself but also excited to be here and see that the potential was amazing. On June 21st Gary called for light east-southeast winds, but I was determined to make the most of the day regardless. Here's what happened.
After yesterday's debacle I was extremely motivated. Nothing purifies desire like a good dose of resistance. By 9:30 I was in the tow field, where the sky was absolutely full of moist clouds. Gary's morning forecast had predicted relatively light east-southeast winds aloft but good cloud development early, and sure enough there were good clouds but they were moving slower than the day before; many people elected not to fly due to the low wind, but at 9:50 I was clipped into the tow line. The Flytec Aerotow pilots, Russ and Bo, had come out to help David Prentice with the towing (he made it back from his flight/retrieve at 4:30 in the morning, it really shows his level of commitment to the common cause that he was out there at 9:00 in the morning), and I heeded their advice to wait a minute for a good cloud to set up overhead before towing. The tow went very well; Dave got me to 1,000 feet over the ground, by far the highest tow I'd had, as the paraglider tow field is fairly short. Immediately I hooked a light but solid 100 up under the forming cloud and started the game. The time was 10:00 a.m. I had never been able to stay in the air towing before about 11:00, but this day seemed more promising.
I was very careful with the climb off tow; often in the morning you only get one chance. The wind here blows hard enough that it only takes a few circles and you're out over a seemingly endless mesquite mess with very limited access. Three days earlier I landed about eight miles from the tow paddock and it took four hours for a retrieve vehicle to get within walking distance of me. That day I walked about a mile and used 1.5 liters of water before crawling into some half-shade under a bush to wait out the afternoon. Most of the other areas I've flown in have good access roads or reasonable temperatures; there are lots of roads here, but they are almost all behind locked gates, and the heat is really unlike anything else I've ever experienced. It's quite serious landing out here; the border patrol told me they find bodies in the brush regularly. Although my climb was slow, I was absolutely determined to stay cool at base rather than suffer on the ground again.
On the radio I could hear that my friend Felipe Karam from Mexico was in the air, which was good, it's always nice to have someone else in the air with you even if they are a ways off. At least then you have someone to relay coordinates to the chase car if you do land out. My drift was relatively, light, and after an hour I had only gone about 20 miles, but I was still in the air. Let's see, on my two other long flights here I had landed at about 7:00, unable to find more lift. That gave me nine hours or 180 miles, a far cry from the 242 I needed. However, you can usually fly faster in the middle of the day, so figure 30 miles an hour for four hours and then a bit slower in the evening, that works out to maybe 230 and my glider is surging all over the place, better focus on flying. No matter how I calculated it a world record didn't seem likely, but I figured the experience of flying the morning would be useful so I decided to stay in the air and just see where I was at 1:00. It's also common to land between about 12:00 and 1:00; a time I call the "witching hour;" it's like the morning lift stops and the afternoon lift isn't working yet, and I wanted more experience surviving that.
From ten to 11:30 I flew very conservatively, circling in any scrap of lift and staying as high as possible to make sure I stayed in the game and out of the mesquite hell. At 11:30 the sky started to dry up noticeably, a sure sign that the thermals were spacing out as the day's heating took cloud base higher. I hooked a solid 700 fpm climb that took me up in the blue to 6500 feet, well above the "old" base at 3500 feet. I did my first long glide to the northeast in order to avoid controlled airspace around the Laredo airport. As Gary had predicted the wind was blowing more from the east than the south, which made it harder to stay out of Mexico, the Laredo airport and possibly the Del Rio military base at 200 miles from take off. Whenever I had a choice I took a slightly easterly glide so that I wouldn't get blown into Mexico or controlled airspace.
At 12:00 I had broke out my lunch of two Pop Tarts and enjoyed the first one immensely with my normal Red Bull/water chaser. Eating and drinking in flight are essential to stay motivated; unfortunately I dropped the second Pop Tart, which got me a little aggravated as all I had left in the food bucket were two Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream cookies and it could be a long day. I briefly considered spiral diving after my Pop Tart but it actually got a good glide going and zipped off into the distance proving that about anything will go faster than a paraglider. I had done about 45 miles in the first two hours, definitely NOT a record pace. I thought again about landing but every time I got down to about 2,000 feet above the ground the heat was unbearable and Darryl, my video and driving partner, was way behind me, and I didn't want to wait on the ground in misery--so I might as well keep flying.
By 1:00 I was 65 miles out; if anything the wind seemed to be slowing down aloft. My downwind glides between thermals were only about 32 mph, partly because I was cutting a bit crosswind to stay out of Mexico. We had been warned that the strip of border north of Laredo and before Del Rio was full of drug runners who would shoot you on sight, but the development was better over this area so I took my chances and ran along the clouds over largely roadless areas until about 2:00 and 85 miles. Four hours, 85 miles, that works out to about 22 miles an hour. Still not fast enough for a world record. I resolved to glide longer and only climb when I had hit something above 400fpm on the vario. Normally this strategy doesn't work for long-distance flying. The game is to stay in the air, circling in even relatively light lift and letting the wind work for you. Cloud base had risen to about 7,500 feet, but the thermal climbs were really slowing down about 1,000 feet below base which seemed weird until I noticed that the cloud development was definitely smaller and farther apart than it had been. There were no major cloud streets to fly along under, but I did my best to get good glides and simply move faster by leaving the climbs when they slowed at all. This strategy kept me lower, but the winds seemed better and I was able to glide at up to 35MPH if I used some speed bar and kept off the brakes as much as possible.
Three p.m. saw me out at about 110 miles. More complex mental arithmetic supported by the first Little Debbie led me to believe a record was very unlikely; if I needed to go 240 miles then I was still 130 miles short with four hours of airtime, maybe five if I got lucky. 22 miles an hour average speed wasn't going to cut it, but it would be close if I ran into some more southerly winds at the end of the day and went a bit faster for the next couple of hours. Darryl told me he was good with chasing if I had even a chance at the record, which helped my psyche a lot. A motivated driver is key to staying in the air, driver suck can be lethal to distance flying. OK, time to race.
I figured I'd hit the dirt like I always do when I race (anyone who has been in a competition with me has certainly flown over my grounded glider), but Darryl was relatively close and there were enough roads so why not? 30 minutes later I was about 400 feet above the ground having skipped two light climbs in favor of gliding fast. The heat was appalling; I found a very weak thermal maybe 300 feet above the ground and started working it, I'd rather fly until it started to cool down around six than land and suffer waiting for Darryl to find me. Soon my light thermal turned into a ripper, and I happily cranked back to cool temperatures at 6500 feet, still below base but high enough to get back on the speed bar and head downwind. I continued to fly aggressively, often gliding to within 500 feet of the ground while working a little to the east to miss the Del Rio air force base at 200 miles. The next two hours went by very quickly. I couldn't believe it was 5:30 when I looked at my watch, I had been in a total zone of just flying as fast and efficiently as I could. I felt very in-tune with the air, perhaps the best feeling in flying for me. I could feel the thermals in front and to the sides of me through the Boomerang, and I was able to stop thinking and just fly instinctively, totally immersed in the game.
The ground rises quickly the farther north in Texas you get, and now it was about 1000MSL and I was gliding to within a 1000 feet of it regularly before hooking violent thermals back up to about 6500 feet. The strategy had worked; at 6 p.m. I was at about 190 miles and safely clear of the Del Rio air force base, which meant I could glide more to the west with the east wind as the Texas border cuts more westerly into Mexico. If I could just stay in the air until 8:00 and cover 30 miles an hour for the next two hours I could have the record.
The Texas Hill Country starts about 200 miles from Zapata, and I could see that the cloud development was non-existent between me and the first hills. No clouds generally means no good thermals, but I was at 6500 feet so I went downwind on glide toward the hills and hoped for the best. Gary had told me that the winds often really pick up over the hill country, and sure enough I was going at about 45 miles an hour downwind as the ground rose up to meet me. At about 500 feet above the ground I started to worry; the air had been very still during the glide, a sign that the thermals are shutting down. At 200 feet above the ground I saw about 10 birds climbing well maybe 1000 feet in front of me. This was going to be close, but I could feel the thermal tugging at my glider. I knew that if I could just stay in the air until I hit it that I would have a shot at the record. The situation was complicated by a set of power lines downwind of the thermal; the wind was strong enough that I would probably be going slightly backwards if I couldn't get up in the thermal, but then I realized that I probably didn't have enough altitude to turn into the wind and land anyhow; I was either going to hit the thermal and climb out or land going downwind well above the safe speed limit. Desperate men do desperate things. With teeth clenched and the brakes held tightly I followed a thin line of zero sink and felt my glider pressurize and surge hard at the thermal like a shark. I didn't wait until the surge ended to start turning, and the birds scattered as I wobbled my way into their midst, cleared the powerlines and 10 minutes later was at 6000 feet under a freshly formed cloud. My whole body was vibrating and my jaw hurt from grinding my teeth, but I now had a real shot at the record. It was 7:00 and I was at 220 miles. I got on the radio to Darryl and let him know I was back in the game, and his words were, "GO! GO!" I rode my cloud until it turned to strong sink, then went.
There were more clouds downwind and I raced toward them at up to 50 MPH, but sinking like a rock. The terrain below me was wild, as though God had rumpled up the landscape like a carpet. It would not be a good place to land a paraglider. At 500 feet above the sharply rolling hills I flew near Darryl and gave him my bearing and distance, then flew over the first 200 foot hill with a downwind speed of 45MPH. It was now 7:30, later in the day than I had ever flown at Zapata but the clouds above me were obviously still forming so something could possibly work. Darryl filmed me sinking out behind the ridge and later said, "It was like watching one of those plane crashes on TV. I expected to see a ball of flame and smoke when you disappeared behind the hill." Now down below ridge level I started cursing myself for being in such a stupid position-again.
There was no good place to land going backwards; the sharp ridges would surely throw violent rotors with the wind, and the image of crashing miles from a road and certainly out of radio or cell contact was on my mind. I checked my reserve handle as I sank lower and hoped I would have enough altitude to use it. I felt like I was in the middle of a ridge minefield; SHIT! I came into another ridge low, surfed up it then pointed my glider into the wind and went over the top going backwards at maybe 10 with a fair amount of brake on to help the glider stay stable through the rotor. Shit. As expected I found some ridge lift, and surfed left and backwards to where the sun was fully hammering a large open bowl in the lee.
Surfing right might have been better for landing as the gully was more open, but I was already in deep so… Suddenly the glider pressurized, the wind roared like it often does just before you get worked, and the vario indicated 600fpm lift. Normally this is followed by stronger sink in a rotor, and I waited a second or two for the sink before the thought crashed into my head that perhaps this was a thermal-or more likely wishful thinking. I've been fooled so many times in rotor… A sharp turn in a rotor is generally a bad idea, it takes your weight out of the center of the wing but the glider continued to feel pressurized and solid so in one of those endless instantaneous decisions I cranked a hard left turn deeper into the lee. Something very good or very bad was about to happen.
At 1,000 feet over the hills I realized my entire body was again shaking uncontrollably from the adrenaline, and I radioed Darryl that I had escaped but it was the most terrifying experience I'd ever had on a glider. It's one thing to get blown over a big ridge with some altitude, but quite another to be facing a bad rotor less than 200 feet off the deck. At 7:45 I was at base at 230 miles, floating near the wispy fresh clouds and grinning like a man who has had the rope removed from his neck just before the trap floor drops away. I circled lazily at base, letting the strong drift work for me and just enjoying the feeling of being high over a beautiful evening landscape; there's a fine line between terror and peace.
I radioed Darryl and asked him to check the GPS for the exact time of sunset at our position; he radioed back that it was 8:45 and then said, "Hey, it's the summer solstice and the longest day of the year!" I had been in the air for almost ten hours. It was hard to see northwest in the late evening light, and I wanted to land near a road so Darryl could be my landing witness, but in all the confusion of getting low twice and fighting out I had totally lost track of where I was in relation to the few roads in the area. I circled until 8:15 or so then went on final glide at 45MPH. At about 1,000 feet over the ground I saw a relatively wide open valley with a good road, so I glided in and turned into the wind for a slow backwards descent through a mild rotor into the shadows. I landed at 8:38, seven minutes before sunset and 10 hours 38 minutes after launching. It's taken me a few years, but at least for now I've gotten the world record back. And, while flying farther than anyone ever has on a paraglider is a nice plus, I know that I've had the best flight of my life-so far! In the end that's what counts. Weeks later I continue to dream about flying into the sunset Texas Hill Country; some nights I climb out into the light like an invincible hawk, on others I crash painfully into the shadows and awake with the knowledge that, while I flew well, I also rolled the dice-and won.
Flying in Zapata is very committing; the Owens Valley in July is the only site I've ever flown with the same potential for serious problems. If you land a long way from a road here you could seriously die of heat exhaustion and dehydration as many illegal immigrants from Mexico have. I absolutely will NOT fly into the Texas Hill Country again unless I'm at base and think I can stay there until I pass over it. On the other hand, if the wind had been blowing just five more miles an hour I could have gone an additional 50 miles for perhaps 310 miles. Gary rated my day a "4" on a scale of 1 to 10; someone will fly 300+ miles here, and it will be a great accomplishment. World records are made to be broken; mine will be, perhaps soon, so rip it up Dave!
I flew a Gin Boomerang; I believe in choosing the best weapon for the type of flying I'm doing. At home in the mountains where I normally walk up to sites I fly an Ozone Peak, but on the flats I wanted the best-performing wing I could find. The Boomerang is that wing. I bought my Boomerang II used from Chris Muller, Gin nicely refunded the money after the record, thanks!
I'd like to thank Darryl Czuchra for driving, Gary Osaba for his support over the years and finding this magnificent site, Dave Prentice for the tow (he remarked just after I got off tow, "Hey, I think I just towed him up for a new world record. I'd like to have it for at least 24 hours!), David Glover for his enthusiasm and downloading my Flytec Barograph and GPS (all good), and especially all the other pilots and people here at the World Record Encampment. It's a very positive atmosphere and a real honor to fly with everyone here.
Finally, I wouldn't have done this flight and many others without the support of Jeff Farrel, Chris Santacroce and the whole team at Superfly. They have stood by me through a lot of adventures as friends and sponsors. Jim Gunning, Hayes Wheeless and the entire Red Bull team have given me the freedom to live this life, thanks. Fly far, land safely.
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