The short story is that a new hang gliding world record for distance was set on Tuesday, July 3rd in Texas. Before it was 435 miles. Now it's 475 miles (Zapata to just east of Lubbock).
The longer story is one about camaraderie, international cooperation, and sportsmanship.
A bit of background: in 2000, a group of hang glider pilots came to Zapata, Texas (one hour south of Laredo down along the border) to test a theory that this region held the best combination of weather and terrain to set new distance records in hang gliders. The dry plains of Texas and New Mexico have been the haunt of sailplane pilots for decades. Until that point, however, hang glider pilots had focused on the Owens Valley in California for distance records. What Texas offered was not only good thermals (and ones far less turbulent than those found in the Owens Valley), but strong southeast winds that could conceivably carry the pilot an extra 200 miles over the span of the day-long flight.The kind of skies that hang glider and sailplane pilots love
These pilots returned each year thereafter for a two week period around the summer solstice (giving them the most daylight possible) and labeled it the World Record Encampment. It was here at the WRE in 2001 that Austrian pilot Manfred Ruehmer flew 435 miles (conveniently a nice round figure of 700 kilometers for the non-Americans), prompting the Italian hang glider manufacturer that sponsored him to call the next glider they designed the MR700.
In 2002, American Mike Barber, having been in the air for over ten hours, calculated that he had flown far enough beyond 435 to exceed the 1% extra required by what were then the NAA rules to break a world record. So, despite his comfortable altitude, he dove down just to land and get it over with.
Unfortunately, he had miscalculated and had only flown 438 miles. Ever since then, the phrase often spoke among hang glider pilots was that "Manfred has the record, Mikey's flown the farthest." For the last ten years, hang glider pilots have been waiting for someone to finally unify the distance record once again.
This uncomfortable situation was probably the greatest impetus that lead to end of the 1% rule. Regulations now state that distance records must be exceeded by only a minimum of 1 kilometer.
I was there at the WRE in 2002 as the driver for other pilots. Though I've flown hang gliders since 1991 (and sailplanes and powered aircraft well before that), the only way I could ever be involved in hang gliding at this level is to be the support crew for friends of mine who can
fly at this level. I've been involved in supporting six hang gliding world championships and many other competitions since that time in either the States, Europe, or Australia, though I hadn't ever been back to Zapata.
I have, however, closely followed the happenings at the WRE. Over the years, I've noted with some disappointment that, while occasional speed records over triangles of various distances were set, the straight distance record remained unchallenged.
Having a feeling that this was the year things could happen (out of a combination of wishful thinking and the knowledge that they hadn't happened in so long), I encouraged a friend of mine, Jonny Durand from Australia, to go to Zapata this summer and give it a try and, if he did, I volunteered to drive for him.
Jonny, 32, is clearly Australia's best pilot (Australian National Champion for the last ten years straight, placed 2nd at the 2009 World Championships) and is often ranked #1 in the world, rarely lower than #3. He had been to Zapata once before, but the weather hadn't been cooperative. Once he had committed to the idea returning this year, he, in turn, encouraged his American friend Dustin Martin to join us in Zapata.
Dustin, also 32, is one of the States' best pilots. He is always ranked among the top five Americans, was a member of the American team at the last four bi-annual world championships, and has been the American national champion five times. In theory, they are competitors both by nationality and sponsorship (Jonny flies an Australian brand of hang glider-Moyes, Dustin, an American brand-Wills Wing). Often enough, however, they fly together. They jointly hold the unofficial record for distance on the east coast of 283 miles from my home airport (and home) in Groveland, Florida to a point well into Georgia. Having spent that day flying as a team, they purposely landed in the same field, literally almost colliding as they flared.
Once both Jonny and I had arrived in Zapata at the end of June, I witnessed the phone call Jonny made to Dustin in which he was trying to convince him to come on out to the WRE. Something about a lack of funds seems to be conveyed on the other end, to which Jonny suggested that Dustin advise Wills Wing that he
(Jonny) was there with his Australian Moyes hang glider. "That ought to motivate them to get you here," he suggested.
Apparently it worked, for Dustin showed up two days later but with a limited budget and no driver. His plan was that if he made it past the hill country (200 miles away), he had a friend out there who could pick him up. Dustin had no answer, however, when he was asked what he would do if he didn't make it that far but landed, instead, in the area of dirt roads and locked gates between Zapata and Laredo (which sometimes require a pilot hike five miles out with his glider and harness).
Since we knew that, one way or another, one of us would most likely be picking him up, the attitude around the airport seemed to one of a bit of resentment at this lack of preparation. On the other hand, we had to reluctantly acknowledgement that he was, in fact, good enough to assume he'd make it at least as far as 200 miles. Dustin had been to the WRE several times before. Three years ago he flew as far 410 miles, the closest anyone had ever come to surpassing Manfred/Mikey's flights.
On July 3rd, the first combination of the right kind of weather occurred along the course most conducive to distance flights between Zapata and Lubbock (500 miles away, also a convenient figure of just over 800 kilometers for the non-Americans).
Gary Osaba, the brains behind and the organizer of the WRE, launched early in a sailplane to check out the conditions aloft for the hang glider pilots.Jonny conferring with Gary just after he lands
Six pilots took off (four Americans, one Brazilian, one Australian). Dustin was the first to judge the time right enough to take his glider out to the runway, so he was the first towed up. Jonny was second, ten minutes later.Jonny preparing for launch
Once Jonny was airborne, I started driving north along the anticipated route (following his progress both by radio and a SPOT satellite tracker). The strategy for all pilots was to endure the weak lift between Zapata and Laredo long enough to get to the strong lift just before the hill country that begins around Uvalde.
About 100 miles into the flight, Jonny had caught up with Dustin. Since all six pilots shared the same frequency to facilitate rescue in the event of an emergency, I started hearing the two of them talking to each other on the radio about thermals and lift here and there. Their normal spirit of mutually beneficial cooperation was taking place, even though both Jonny and Dustin wanted the record for themselves. I suppose the habit of friendship is hard to break.
After the flight, they later said that though each flew his own judgement of the best route, often enough they were wingtip to wingtip. Once, while cruising comfortably at 10,000 feet (7500 AGL), Jonny said he spotted Dustin only 1000 off the ground below him. Thirty minutes later they were once again nearly wingtip to wingtip in the same thermal. Though frequently separated by that much divergence in position, the equality of their flying skill would cause them to meet up from time to time without conscious thought to do so.
At 200 miles out, Dustin had flown over and established radio contact with his stand-by retrieve. Jonny encouraged Dustin to dismiss his driver and rely on us since Dustin's day was clearly entwined with Jonny's fate.
After they'd been airborne for eight hours, Jonny developed radio difficulties and was unable to transmit, though he could confirm with hand signals to Dustin that he could still hear both our transmissions.
Google searches from my iPad and phonecalls back to the WRE organizers in Zapata established that the sunset in their most likely place of landing was 8:55p.m. that day. Carrying strobe lights enabled them, under the ultralight category, to legally fly for 30 minutes after sunset. If they landed one minute past that, any record claim would be rejected by the NAA.
The lift died at 8:30, however, and Dustin radioed that they both were on final glide and would be on the ground well before the deadline of 9:25 p.m.
For the duration of the WRE, a website had been established that displayed the tracks of their satellite trackers, and the word had spread quickly among hang glider pilots on Facebook and by e-mail that this flight was underway. The website eventually had 9000 hits over the span of the eleven hour flight. The 10:00 a.m. launch here was at 1:00 a.m. in Australia and I heard many tales of friends of Jonny who stayed up all night watching their progress on the website. A question everyone was asking from the phonecalls coming to my cellphone towards the end of the flight from literally around the world (particularly friends in Australia) was; "Were they flying together?" I radioed this request up to Dustin after he announced their final glide and he replied, "I can almost touch him."
I'd also been following that website with my iPad but I'd driven into an area of poor 3G coverage in the last 30 minutes of their flight and hadn't had a tracking update for some time. I couldn't talk to Jonny and Dustin couldn't readily identify the town he'd just flown over. Jonny, hearing my request, was shouting, "Post! We just flew over Post!" into his dead microphone.
I was in Post, trying to decide which road to take out of it to the north. Knowing where they were last headed and having a good digital map of the area, I headed up the road I suspected they were over. A few minutes later I received a text message from Jonny's tracker that he had landed, and the accompanying coordinates confirmed I was on the right road. He called from the ground a few minutes later to verify his coordinates. When I told him I was only three kilometers away, his sigh of "Outstanding," spoke more about his exhaustion than my driving skills.
When I reached Jonny, he told me that Dustin had 300 feet on him on the last glide and had kept going off across the field behind us. "I don't know what he's thinking," he told me. "I just wanted to land on this road."
"Trying to squeeze every inch of distance out of this final glide," was what Dustin was thinking. With the 20 kt. tailwind they had, they were showing a 45 to 1 glide ratio on their variometer computers (Flytec 6030's for both of them). Those 300 feet translated into three miles and Dustin barely made it to a parallel road that was more directly downwind.
Jonny had flown 472 miles, Dustin 475.Jonny minutes after landing
Jonny later joked that, had his radio been able to transmit, he would have told Dustin that he wasn't getting a ride home unless he landed behind him.
Both Jonny's and my phone rang non-stop for 30 minutes after he landed as we fielded calls from friends in the States, Europe, and Australia. Eventually I just ignored my phone and answered Jonny's for him so that he could get on with packing up his glider before it got dark. We drove over to Dustin and tied his glider next to Jonny's on top of the rental car. Dustin as we found him a bit later
The next three priorities for all of us were: 1) finding a Taco Bell, 2) finding an open liquor store (it was 11:00p.m. by then), and 3) finding a hotel.With Jonny and Dustin in the hotel room near midnight
The following day, Jonny and I spent the entire eleven hour drive back to Zapata trying to shake Dustin's confidence about the record we certainly conceded to ourselves that he had justly earned. Did the 1% rule apply since Jonny landed first (we didn't learn the 1% rule didn't exist anymore until later)? Did Dustin cut too close to the Laredo Class D airspace and enter it? If he did, it would nullify his flight. Whether or not he had wasn't truly confirmed until the following day when their track logs were downloaded back in Zapata, a moment captured in the video here
A three minute animation of their flight, using files from their GPS tracklogs, can be found here
In the days that followed, Jonny received a fair amount of communications by text, e-mail, and on facebook that Dustin should have landed with him and shared the record. This began to disturb him more and more as time passed. After an aborted attempt to try for 500 again on July 5th (not enough lift), Jonny addressed these sentiments on a Facebook post:Wow. Tried again today but landed very early due to average conditions. Thanks to everyone for all their support with our big flight. It was truly an amazing experience flying such a long distance with another pilot. We flew together probably 70% of the flight but we split up several of times and then connected again. We eventually met up again right on the 701km mark, wing tip to wing tip. To cross the old record within 10 seconds of each other was something else, considering we had been flying for over 10 hrs. At the end I went on final glide and Dustin stopped behind me in zero sink and I turned around. When I got there I was lower and did not find anything worth staying in. We both left, Dustin now 300ft above me, and glided to the ground.
I know many of you think Dustin should have landed with me but at the end of the day anyone one of us would have gone further to own the record. Also, even if we had of landed together, our flights are measured from our release point, making it more than likely one or the other would have the record on paper.
I planned on flying this flight two weeks ago on this very day and landing in Lubbock to eat at a Taco Bell. This is what I did and I am very satisfied knowing I achieved the goal I set out for, even though I did not get the official record. Congrats to Dustin for being the new World Distance Record Holder. Thanks to everyone involved, especially Timothy Ettridge for the long retrieve.
It's not over...yet. Though Dustin didn't launch on the next good day, July 6th, Jonny attempted a Distance to Goal record of 354 miles (the current record is 321 miles, set from here in Zapata in 2002) and came within about 30 miles of doing it. That was only a nine hour effort in the air and, because of his slower average airspeed, only a seven hour drive back the next day.
Shortly after leaving Zapata, Dustin added his own comments on the flight to facebook friends:Thanks everybody for all the congratulations! After some heavy windshield time I am back home. 4000 km driving for one single flight, that is the real record.
I have put in plenty of time in Zapata over the years, but some lucky things came together this year, not least was the timing to be able to fly the entire flight with my friend Jonny ...and if you're choosing someone to race the cloud-studded flats with, there aren't many better choices.
My equipment was very well adjusted on this attempt and after I landed it felt like we had just flown a typical 3 or 4 hour task. No need to layer up in Texas, just a speed sleeve, no shirt underneath, and a balaclava for sun protection. Really pleasurable, relaxing flight almost the entire way.
So thanks to Tim for driving, Russell for towing, Gary and co for the WRE organization, Wills Wing for the support and equipment, the Shapiro sweat shop for the harness, Flytec for the 6030, and Blueye for my Buster glasses. Every piece of equipment was stretched to the limit!
Now for the paperwork.
At this moment, the WRE is on temporary hold. Jonny's gone back to hang out at his girlfriend's home in New Orleans. Dustin, as mentioned above, has moved on to other projects. The Brazilian pilots have gone home but Jonny and a few other pilots are positioned to come back on a day's notice if the weather offers one last set of perfect days to go for 500 miles. At this point, July 17th-20th looks promising.
And me? As soon as I send this, I'm off for some cooler temperatures in the hill country of Texas in my Cessna 150J (which, along with a bike in the back, is my only mode of transportation for the summer). There I'll await Jonny's final decision about returning or not this weekend.
If the conditions do warrant Jonny's return, I'll announce it here in a comment below and on Twitter (timothyettridge) by July 15th. If he does fly again, I'll tweet news on his progress as soon as he launches. Also, his track can be followed live at http://chorlton.homeip.net/spotmap/zapata.html
. If that link is no longer working by the time Jonny flies again, then try http://tinyurl.com/jonzapata
The full set of pictures from Jonny's camera on July 3rd can be found here
. If he's in them, I took them. Otherwise they're his own.
[August 1st note: the final chapter...and the story of the final world record...is posted below]
Save space. Live on the edge.