On July 17th I set an Open Distance World Record in Hang Gliding flying 700.8 km (435 miles) from Zapata to Lamesa in Texas, USA. The FAI has not officially recognized this record yet; but we are working on it. I already submitted all the necessary information and documentation.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
I am not sure if I got a message directly from Davis Straub or if I read it on one of his Oz Reports, the point is, that I heard about Davis, David Glover and Gary Osoba organizing this trip to Texas to try and break some world records after last year's successful attempt. The expedition was called (same as last year) "World Record Encampment (WRE)". David Glover provided us with all the necessary information regarding the local rules (i.e. CTR, areas with difficult access…) and Gary Osoba was very helpful especially because of his extensive knowledge of the weather in this area. I was immediately interested by the idea but was not very sure if I was going to take part in it or not. They scheduled 2 trips: the first one overlapped with the Worlds/WAG in Spain and the second one started about a week after that comp and lasted for 2 weeks. I was sure that if we were lucky enough to have good weather, we would have been able to make some excellent flights during the 2 weeks.
Our group was not really big: we were around 15 pilots including paragliders, rigid and flex wings. Most of them were from the US, plus Andre Wolf and Betinho Schmitz from Brazil, and Kathleen Rigg and myself as the only Europeans. Apparently Davis' messages did not get many pilots from this side of the globe interested; but somehow I feel that, after the great flights we had, it is going to change. Kathleen rang me up in mid-May to ask if I was going and if other Austrians were going too. Since it was just the 2 of us we decided to go together; she organized the plane tickets and everything. During the Worlds we got the news of Mark Poustinchian breaking the Class II Open Distance Record. At the beginning we heard it was 630 km (391 miles); some days later they confirmed 590 km (367 miles). I recall talking with Andre Wolf about it about how it must be incredible to fly so far and for so long. We come to the conclusion that it was definitely something to try out. At that time I felt really glad that I had signed up for it.
Right after the Worlds I did not go back home (Italy) but instead I drove to England with Kathleen. We departed from London on July 4th with a direct flight to Houston. We picked up a rental car at the airport and drove for 7 hours to Zapata. During our drive we were able to see from the cloud formation - nice cumulus - that the place would be pretty good; it was not hard to imagine flying long distances in the area.
When we got to Zapata we went to our hotel and thought it would be a good time to rest; but soon we heard from Davis that the next day could be good. I felt like I had no time to reassemble my glider (it was short packed) and get everything ready on time…I felt stressed at that point. Luckily the day, and the following ones, were not as good as we thought and we had some time to acclimatize; it took me some days to get over my jet lag (7 hours difference), to get used to the conditions there, to prepare all my equipment and to get to know all the rules and information regarding CTR, special roads, boarders... etc. It was definitely important that I had some time before we started flying really long.
We had an excellent retrieve driver, Don from Canada. Even though he had practically never seen a hang glider in his life before, he ended up working for both 2001 WRE's doing an excellent job. He was not only very nice and enthusiastic but he already knew the roads, the little towns and the secrets of the area, which was just great for us!
Why is Zapata an ideal place for such flights? Well, it is a small city located very close to the US-Mexican border, south from Laredo - the largest city in the area -. The wind direction is practically constant between S and SE and the strength varying from one day to another but being constant throughout the same day. This last characteristic is very important when flying long distances.
It is close enough to the Gulf of Mexico, which provides sufficient humidity for early thermal development and cloud formation. This gives you the possibility to take off quite early, which is one of the greatest advantages of this area. Even though you do not have much height to play around with, this thermal activity allows you to stay up. Moreover, as the day goes by cloud base rises.
The area around take-off is flat and lies between 150-250 m asl; 350 km north of take-off there is a hill area that runs across Texas and is approx. 100 km long, the area after the hills is flat again and lies at roughly at 700 m asl. You could say that there are places to land everywhere but the retrieve is the tricky thing there. If you land in the middle of nowhere, it can take you a long time to get out, which is a good reason to consider such places not suitable for landing. Some other fields have access to them but with lots of locked and unlocked gates to go through that make it a real hassle to get in/out of such places. Landing in a field some kilometers after take-off can mean a long-lasting retrieve. The first part of the flight is always the hardest because you have to use every meter of lift you encounter in order to stay high and make it past this initial area.
The day I flew the record was not the best day Texas has to offer. I am sure that if you have the opportunity to stay there for 2 months you could encounter a terrific day. If you have more tailwind, an earlier take off and make no mistakes I think it is possible to fly further than I did - maybe even 800 km!
THE TRAINING DAYS
The first days, I noticed that some pilots would tow as early as 8:30 or 9:00 am, up to 2000 m asl well over cloud base (around 1,000 m asl).
During the training days I tried it as well. It was possible to start at that time because there were thermals already and the glide with tail wind after releasing gave you immediately 20 km extra; but we soon realized that the risk of landing relatively short after (to relatively bomb-out) and miss out on a great day was too high. I realized that starting at around 10:00 am was a good compromise between getting started early, having decent activity to stay up and making some kilometers while waiting for the day to develop. At this time the "bomb-out" risk was much lower. Of course this may change from day to day. It was also decisive to take off early in order to be able to get the best out of a good day.
These first flights were very important for me to get to know the area and the conditions there; but it was also useful because I could get my equipment ready and adjust some of my flying habits. For instance, I have been flying without water the last couple of years and I have never flown with food during a competition. For the WRE I bought a new Camelback and packed some food in my harness. I also had to use the radio in flight again. Some years ago I got to a point where I preferred to fly without a radio. As my helmet, with the headset and all, was.stolen (3 years ago) I just did not bother to re-install my headset. I like it much better when I am alone up there with no contact to the rest of the world. I knew it was necessary to fly with a radio in the WRE (i.e. keep in contact with our retrieve) and I was glad to be using one during those 2 weeks.
THE FIRST FLIGHTS
You had to learn quickly to classify the days. It was crucial to decide if you were going to go for it or if it was better to land, get back early and be ready for the next day. I think that you can fly between 200 and 300 km each day in this area; but flying far and landing late (between 20:00 and 21:00) means going to sleep late and not being perfectly fit for the next day. It was not always easy to make such a decision; a couple of times I felt like I should have tried to exploit a certain day more than I actually did. This happened especially towards the end of the first week. I felt somewhat disappointed of my decisions, not only because I had not flown amazingly far, but also because I wanted to improve my position on the Priority List.
There was a "Priority List (PL)" for towing at the WRE and it was important for me to be in it since this gave you the opportunity to get in the queue whenever you felt it was time to go.
There was only one Dragonfly and I wanted to make sure to be able to launch at the right time. The order was established according to your longest flight ever. My longest flight was 210 km, I was towards the end of the list; therefore deciding to land early to be ready for the next day did not help me improve my position much. At a certain point I found myself being second to last on the PL and it was driving me absolutely crazy! When I would take off with the last group I was always stressed out because I wanted to catch up, sometimes this made me make the wrong choices. Luckily I was able to improve my position in the above-mentioned list and I was able to take off at the right time during the last part of the WRE.
Towards July 15th the conditions improved a lot and I decided to fly as far as I could on that day. I knew it was not a record day but I just kept going and I flew 360 km (broke my personal distance record), which made me skip several positions forward in the PL. It was a blue thermal day and I flew for almost 8 hours. We got back to the hotel after midnight. The next day I was pretty tired.
The forecast for the next day - July 16th - was quite good with better thermals and slightly stronger wind. On this day I felt that I could go for it. The first part of the flight went fast and pretty well but after maybe 200 km the air became drier and the cumulus formation stopped so that at 15:00 I encountered my last cumulus of the day. I did not know what to do because I had flown quite far and I knew there were still plenty of time, thermal activity and sunlight left so it did look like a record day. I flew further into the blue gap, there were blue thermals here and there; this type of thermals are not really suited for distance record flying. When you are not able to 'see' the next thermal, actually imagine where it would be according to the cloud above it, you tend to fly less aggressively and not as fast. You are not able to have such a clear idea of the path you will follow. At least, this is how it works for me.
I decided to land at 15:30, after 41 hours, close to the main road. Half an hour later, the clouds started forming again and I heard of a pilot flying past me. I thought "Scheisse, maybe today was THE day and I am stuck down here!".
This ended up being the best decision because if I would have really flown fast, and maybe broken the record for some kilometers, I could have not been back at the hotel on time to be ready and 'fresh' for the next day, THE day.