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Hang gliding: 200 miles from Wallaby Ranch, USA

Thursday 15 June, 2000


What it’s like hang gliding at Wallaby Ranch…

Tiki Mashy tells the story of Davis Straub’s US East Coast record hang gliding flight, flown from Wallaby Ranch, Florida in 2000. Originally published in Cross Country in 2000

Wallaby Ranch – 9:30ish am (any morning – typical banter).

“Hey Tiki, you wanna yank Davis?”

“Hmm, how ‘bout I just tow him up.”

“Well, he’s out there ready.”

And sure enough, even before breakfast, at the downwind edge of the Wallaby field, sits a lone Atos and dangling from it – the tenacious Davis Straub. Apparently his awesome flight to Georgia the previous week, which netted him the Wallaby Thousand Dollars (a prize the Ranch put up that had remained secure for several years), only fueled his exuberance to get the first 200-miler on the east coast.

Moreover, like a lot of us east of the Mississippi River, this barefoot flying boy is in hot pursuit of the first 200-miler, and not since Michael “Hollywood” Champlin have I ever known a man so relentless and focused on accomplishing a specific flying goal. But unlike “Hollywood,” Davis would see his goal come to fruition on a most unlikely day.

Moderate winds and high pressure were on tap for Wallaby that week. Saturday, in particular, was predicted to be light winds all day with a convergence up the middle of the state. Ordinarily Davis would be out early perched on the “launch pad.”

But Saturday morning conditions coughed up nothing but blue sky, no clouds, no wind, so no big hurry. Davis would later remark, “After all I wasn’t thinking of going 300 miles.”- (Not yet). It was almost a relief not to field the usual question from the pilots who were often milling around waiting for the Wallaby breakfast bell. The question routinely asked? “Why’s that guy launching so early?”

Out of the four years he’s been coming to Wallaby, it’s been the last two that, Davis, like a shark (no resemblance to the Oz Report Editor), has clamped onto the 200 mile challenge with a vengeance. Tirelessly monitoring the ebb and flow of the weather patterns.

Every morning hauling his “junk” out to launch to take another swipe at the brass ring with the full support and complement of Wallaby Ranch. So it was unusual not to see Davis towing up before breakfast. But, this day didn’t look nearly as promising as the days previous, which netted him weak lift and a headache from banging his head on the 3,500′ inversion – an early start? Nope, not this day. That is until Mr. Cummie made an appearance overhead at about 11:00 a.m.

By 11:19 a.m. Carlos had yanked Davis up with one of Wallaby’s “super tugs” and neatly deposited him in a screamer. Suddenly the blue day had potential. Unfortunately, while conditions seemed on the upswing at Wallaby, 30 miles into his flight things got desperate – conditions deteriorated resulting in low saves, slow climb rates, egg-beater/butt-kickin’ turbulence and to top-it-off a low inversion to insure the rowdy air stayed near the ground.

At this juncture Davis considered heading back to Wallaby; low and slow is not the recipe for a 200 miler. I remember when Davis arrived at Wallaby Ranch four years ago in search of the “art and lure” of cross-county hang gliding. Back then it would have been big deal for him to do a 60 mile out-and-return, but now he had bigger fish to fry.

However, this day looked to be just another failed attempt. Before heading back, Davis solicited advice from Mike Barber over the radio; he probably just wanted Mike to confirm that the day really did suck. Mike (who had just launched at Wallaby) advised Davis that “the day is slow, but we should go ahead and keep going.” This, of course, would prove to be stellar advice.

After plodding along low for several hours, skirting big lakes, small pastures and acres of forested area – all too familiar sinkholes – there was very little communication between Davis and Belinda, his trusty-chase crew, Wife, navigator, and all-around good egg.

Wow, did I say Davis had very little to say? Well, only because he’d been getting hammered by the skygods for the past 60 miles. Sometimes we can tolerate getting thrashed around up high, but when you’re low it is positively miserable, because usually there’s no place to run to except for the ground. And there’s no worse feeling then standing in a field as the convergence moves through. Later, Belinda would remark “I don’t think Davis was having very much fun.”

Motivation came in the form of the convergence hovering in the distance, still some 20 miles away. This flight was a crucible of Davis’ perseverance over the gnarly conditions. The strong lift was far too rough to work, and the low stuff wasn’t much better, “it’s all broken up,” poor Davis, “I can’t win and I’m not enjoying the flight,” he comments. He presses on toward the convergence.

Like most chase crews after being in the vehicle for hours, Belinda, stopped in High Springs for a P-break, and like a good soldier she carries her handheld radio into the convenience store. Suddenly all convenience store activities cease when Davis’ voice thunders over the radio”I’m in the convergence, I’m in the convergence!” Finally, at 125 miles out he hits his first cloud since leaving Wallaby. Now the fun starts. The air is still turbulent, but lift is visible and consistently marked by the clouds. Clouds are good-like-that. Davis follows the clouds, which paralleled the) Suwannee River and the Withlacoochee River, to the northwest, staying high and moving quickly – the daylight is fast becoming history. However, the good news is that as it gets later the lift gets better and less turbulent.

Close to seven hours after taking off from Wallaby the skygods saved the best for last and blessed him with 600 fpm to 7,600 feet, an easy coast over the harvested wheat fields into Georgia. Better yet, how big was Davis’ smile when at eleven minutes to seven in the evening (6:49 p.m.) the elusive 200 mile barrier gently passed 3,400′ below him. And how ironic is it that this was when the all clouds dissipated.

On Saturday, May 20, 2000, an unlikely light wind, blue day, Davis Straub launched from Wallaby Ranch, Florida (a state that’s practically an island). His undaunted mission to be the first to fly 200 miles east of the Mississippi culminated after seven and half hours, when he touched those scruffy barefeet down 212 miles away at a farmhouse northwest of Valdosta, Georgia. In one flight he has managed to raise the “bar” significantly for us east coast pilots. That flight yielded a new east coast record, Florida state record, Wallaby Ranch record and finally changed the channel on the 200 mile movie.

Thanks Davis for showing the world what we Floridians have known all along – Florida flying is the best kept secret in hang gliding. Also, thanks to Wallaby Ranch for encouraging pilots (with support and cash incentives) to keep raising the XC bar in Florida. Davis stated it quite nicely, when he said “It’s not the money, but the fact that someone (Malcolm Jones & Wallaby Ranch) has made it meaningful to do this particular task . . . it sure focuses our attention.”

So what’s next? I asked Davis – Belinda smiled and replied: “310, in Florida”.

www.davisstraub.com

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