475 Miles from Zapata!

World Open Distance Hang Gliding Record


On July 3, 2012, the hang gliding world all but stopped its earthly pursuits to tune in to perhaps the most exciting live action event in its modern history. We tried to look busy, pretending to ignore the vibrating phones in our pockets as the incoming Tweets, posts and e-mails threatened to reveal where our minds were focusing. 


Jonny Durand Jr (Australia) and Dustin Martin (U.S.) are two of the world's great hang glider pilots. Friends as well as peers, Jonny and Dustin turn up very often on the winners' stand. Both pilots came to Zapata, Texas, in July '12 to seek record flights.




  Stalking the 1,000 mile barrier for (sailplane) free distance in the U.S.   Photo by Gary Osoba  


The World Record Encampment (WRE) began in '00 as the brainchild of organizer Gary Osoba. Gary's Pliable Moose hang glider company was among the many early pioneering efforts in hang gliding design and manufacture, and his accomplishments in soaring technology and technique are well known. 


Searching for locations where terrain, airspace and weather conditions are favorable for soaring distance record flights, Gary noticed the "Bermuda high" pressure often sets up over the Gulf of Mexico in summer, and sometimes stays there for months. 


Often the western side of this high produces consistent northerly flow up the west side of Texas and on up into the hot dry alluvial plains north of the Rio Grande. Moisture from the Gulf brings cumulus clouds, which may form "streets" and set up early in the day, enabling early takeoffs by pointing the way to the weak early lift.




Many records have been set from the Zapata airport over the years. Austrian Manfred Ruhmer held the official open distance record in a hang glider, set on a flight of 700.6 kilometers (435.33 miles) from Zapata in July '01. American Mike Barber broke his distance in June '02 with a flight of 438 miles, but it remained unofficial because at that time an open distance world record had to be broken by 1%. The rule has since been changed to instead require an additional 1 kilometer of distance to claim a new record. On this day, the rule would not be a problem.


WRE '12 was well attended. Davis Straub brought a Wills Wing Falcon 3 170 single-surface glider to take a swing at his own single-surface record flight of 205 miles, set during WRE '06. U.S. pilots Pete Lehmann, Glen Volk, and Brazillians Glauco Pinto and Andre Wolf and others were there, chasing Class 1 (flexwing) hang gliding records. Gary Osoba brought a beautiful JS-1 Revelation sailplane (serial #2) with the goal of flying it up into Southeast Wyoming to break the 1,000 mile barrier for free distance in the U.S. 




  As one pilot pointed out, this picture pretty much tells the tale: Zapata is a "Big Air" Nirvana. Photo by Gary Osoba



On July 3 Gary Osoba's meteorological report predicted "the overrunning" would set up with conditions favorable to record flights. You can get very good personal accounts of "The Day" from WRE pilot Pete Lehmann's blog (wre500.blogspot.com ) and Jonny Durand's driver, pilot Tim Ettridge's blog ( tinyurl.com/TimZapata ), and we've drawn from their reports. But you could have also had a pretty good seat, no matter where you were on that day, thanks to the Internet.


The Night Before

For us it began the night before, checking in at the Oz Report (ozreport.com ) for the status of the WRE. OR publisher Davis Straub, a multiple record holder and foremost Zapata booster, reported the overrunning and cloud streets on Monday, but with winds becoming lighter halfway downrange, and the decision to hold off for Tuesday as the first of three possible record-worthy days. Five pilots would be carrying SPOT locators and a Webpage had been set up so we could all tune in to see the positions updating along the route.


Tuesday morning, July 3 found us busy here at Glider Rider, and the July issue of LSUF had just begun its postal odyssey to your mailbox. The issue you're reading now was calling for our attention, but midday my phone began to regularly nudge my hip with its vibrator. Twitter and Facebook were aboil by afternoon, and suddenly it became clear both Jonny and Dustin were halfway downrange to a declared goal at Big Spring, Texas, with good winds and clear cloud streets ahead.


Jonny's SPOT was updating every 15 minutes or so with Dustin having longer reporting intervals. As we checked in on them throughout the day, it appeared they were sometimes flying together, other times not. By querying the details of each SPOT report, we could see them making somewhat breathtaking groundspeeds, usually well above 70 kph. 


As they approached 550 kilometers downrange, word came from retrieve driver Tim Ettridge they had decided to blow off the declared goal at Big Spring in favor of the open-distance record, shifting course to the east to follow the most favorable winds and cloud streets. This I first read in pilot Jamie Shelden's naughtylawyertravels.blogspot.com) Twitter feed @naughtylawyertravels at 5:48 p.m. Central Time.


Jamie's next Tweet: "1.5 hours till sunset - heaps of time to shatter the record!" And the next: "643km out at 7,000 ft and climbing!!" Later on, "Timothy 45km behind them on course....he can't keep up in the car;-)....they must be smokin!!'



  Jonny happy. Photo by Jonny Durand



At 7:47 p.m. Central Time: ..."Timothy at 651km and they're at 680km and HIGH!" Then, "Sunset is at 8:55 p.m. ….they have just about a hour left to go!"


Now the story began to come in from all corners, and it's reported that Jonny and Dustin are flying together, with the record well in hand, close enough to touch wingtips. Will they land together? Will they strike out in a race for the record? You are one of the top race-to-goal pilots anywhere, sharing magical air on a day of overlapping advantage, you and your friend are both well beyond the record. How cool, and how sportsmanlike would it be if they landed together to await their retrieve? They did exactly that in '07 when they flew 283 miles from Groveland, Florida, almost to South Carolina, and landed together.


Tim Ettridge's view on the finishes of their July 3, 2012 Zapata flights describe the outcome from a first-person point of view:


"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 3 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 45:1 glide ratio on their variometer computers (Flytec 6030's for both of them). Those 300 feet translated into 3 miles and Dustin barely made it to a parallel road that was more directly downwind.  
"Jonny had flown 472 miles, Dustin 475."
--Tim Ettridge


Down, far!  Photo by Tim Ettridge


Down, a smidgen further!  Photo by Jonny Durand

There was a bit of the "We wuz robbed!" sentiment among Jonny's fans and friends that Dustin's final glide was longer, but Jonny seems undeterred.  


As I write this, he's waking up again in Zapata, eager to hear Gary Osoba's weather workup, hoping for yet another Zapata day of straight winds, long cloud streets and another bite at the apple. I had better switch my phone to vibrate, while I'm thinking about it.




The happy crew on the happy train to sleepytown, at the end of an epic day.   Photo by Jonny Durand 


—Michael Bradford 


From the August '12 issue of Light Sport and Ultralight Flying. Subscribe Here