Kari Castle: I’ve got my record back!

Thursday 1 November, 2001

Kari Castle, women’s hang gliding world champion, interviewed in 1989. Old school!

Carol Binder tells the story of Kari Castle’s female distance record set in Zapata in July 2001

Kari Castle needs no introduction. Since she started flying in 1981 she has competed on just about every hang gliding circuit on just about every continent. The thing I like most about Kari is that she is not just a great pilot, but she is a straight talker. Her energy level is extreme and she is one big inspiration (and not just for female pilots).

In 1993 Kari won the Sandia Classic in New Mexico (USA) which brought her overall US ranking to 6th place. Some thought this to be luck so she again kicked some serious butt in 1995 at the Canadian Nationals where she won.

Kari lives in Bishop California with her local flying site being the famous kick ass Owens Valley (the reason for her great muscles). Ironicly she spends little time there with her busy itinerary travelling from country to country but you´re most likely to catch her in the air sometime between September to November which is her favourite time of year to fly there.

In 1996 Kari won the Women´s World championship in Bright, Australia after coming second at the Womens Worlds in 93 in Japan and 95 in Chelan. She then won the womens worlds in Greece, 2000. This little girl is consistant.

Kari hasn´t attempted too many world records but one of her first attempts rewarded her back in 1990 in Hobbs, New Mexico when she claimed the women’s open distance record of 187 miles and a dog leg of 189 miles.

In 1991, after the first Women’s Worlds in Kössen where she came 29th she then broke her own record and became the first women to fly over 200 miles: 336 km at Horseshoe in the Owens. That was Kari’s furthest flight, until now.

Kari’s record stood until Tiki Mashey (USA), flying also from Hobbs, broke that record in July 1998 with a distance of 219 km. Five months later Tove Heaney the Norwegian from downunder flew 371 km from Lake Munga NSW.

During all of these record attempts Kari blew her knee out when kiting her paraglider and couldn’t fly for a year. In this time her motivation built and she started flying again at the Wallaby Open this year with a new hunger.

In July Kari decided to join the World record encampment in Zapata, Texas which included Manfred Ruhmer, Davis Straub, Betinho Schmitz, Andre Wolfe, Paris Williams, Robert `Bo`Hagewood, Kathleen Rigg and paraglider pilot Josh Cohn.

Most pilots where motivated from Thomas Sucanek and Attila Bertok’s world record triumph in Australia last year. Zapata is located on the border of Mexico and Texas and is the new hot spot for world records. Manfred describes Zapata as a town that used to have a lake!

Apparently it dried up five years ago. He said the town is typically American. Flat, dry and sparse. It’s close to the Gulf of Mexico and delivers perfect high pressure systems and a good moist airstream producing great cloud streets.

The day after Manfred flew his 700 km record (which is looked at now as being unbeatable – and let that be a challenge!), Kari flew her first 200 k since 1991. Not being overly excited by this after looking at Manfred’s barograph she returned back to Zapata to make another attempt the next day. Everyone else opted for a bbq and pool party (she was also tempted).

The new world record holders told their stories. Manfred with his 700 km flight with 409 mile from Davis Straub in his rigid wing. Finally beating the standing record of 308 miles (495 km) by Larry Tudor set in Wyoming back in 1993. Yo Larry. That day Kari decided to go for a fly.

July 20th Kari towed up to 6000 ft at around 11.30 am and proceeded to fly to 100 ft at around the 10 mile mark. At this stage, Kari had lack of motivation for the day and thought, “ok a landing, blue day, I might just hang a few more turns and see if I can get up from my lowest save ever in this crappy lift”.

Kari thought back to a lecture given by Gary Osoba (world class sail plane pilot, meteorologist and founder of Zapata as a record site) and his tips about Dynamic Soaring. She worked small areas of lift motivated by Gary’s stories.

The next two to three hours blue conditions prevailed with base highest at 4000 ft at the 100 mile mark. Clouds started to develop and base started to rise which made going faster, easier.

At this point, Kari’s aim was to beat her own record of 200 miles with a declared goal of 218 miles. I asked Kari what kept her motivated along the way. She said the landscape was so amazing.

At 190 miles Kari was unzipped and ready to land, again… She thought “I’m a loser” having landed there just the day before. She knew it all too well this ugly hole from hell… This was the crux of the flight.

Kari was getting lower, the hill country was rising and the thermal were fewer and far between. Linda Sauer, her driver threw out words of encouragement over the radio from all the pilots back in Zapata, anxious for Kari to make it past this point. Kari in her mind could all the guys sitting around the pool. Maybe another beer for every 50 km is more like it.

She was here, out here in the boonies, alone with the flight ending at the same spot,,, again. Kari kept going and worked each and every possible bubble of lift trying not to keep finding landing areas and try to work the sky. She contoured every ridge and platue to try and get over it. Eventually she rose up to the point where she could see her declarded goal at Rock Springs. She felt a little more confident now she could actually see goal.

As Kari got closer of the top of the platue she realised she´d got it, 218 miles (350 km). She kept flying. 218 miles at 7.30 pm, 7.5 hours after her tow and still flying. She was pretty happy. She realised that should would be able to make her distance attempt with the daylight hours slowly dwindling away.

Kari started to loose her enthusiasm and eventually landed at 229 miles at 8pm. Relieved to have accomplished her declared distance to goal with not such an easy flight.

The days in between the encampment saw very stable conditions. Pilots were coming and going but Kari, Betinho, Davis, Bo, Paris and Josh all remained. All in hope of that ripper day to prove themselves.

On July 26th Kari once again flew to that dreaded 200 miles mark. This time she was really pissed and frustration set in. She thought, “next time I´m going for it”, but her motivation was at an all time low. She did the drive back and reached her motel late that evening. A combination of factors made the next day a real drag with too much flying, driving and not many pilots there to amp you up.

The next day, July 27th the weather finally looked. Normally SE/S´lys were good and drifting you straight on course but the southerly was better which meant you didn´t drift you near the Mexican boarder (with the chance of being shot). Lareado airspace was another concern which avoiding having to push head ((hard) cross wind to avoid it).

Kari showed up at the airport early and rigged her Wills Wing Talon, ready to play the game. What she really wanted to do was to take the day off. She went through the motions. Gary Osoba and Davis Straub brought her new hope with words of encouragement and through their excitement for her flying, Kari didn´t want to let them down. Gary tried to help her prepare mentally for what lay ahead.

But for Kari, the sky didn´t look as good as the chart showed. On the synoptic the next day looked much better and Kari was in need for a break. Then again, a day on the ground, moping about and thinking about the day before, driving everyone crazy with the same story of that dreaded 200 mile point, cursing it.

Or, she could fly. Or she could arrange her trip to Kitzbühel Austria. Finally she decided to fly. 50 miles and if it looked good she would keep going. If not, she could land and take a long needed break.

11.50am and Kari got an aerotow up to 6000 ft over the Zapata Airport. She pinned off and snapped a quick shot of the start point. She made sure, just in case, her Flytec 4030 was recording and away she flew with a 14m/h tailler. She was getting climbs much better that the previous day and felt the first hope for the day.

The clouds that developed at first turned blue again but started re-developing at around the 55 miles mark. With 400-800 ft per min climbs Kari at last felt comfortable. At Loredo she decided to keep going to 100 miles and then evaluate the situation again.

Things were looking good. Base was higher at 9000 ft at 200 miles where she happily looked down on this jinx of a place and not feel threatened. Kari was always too low at this point stuggling in dribbly lift and couldn’t reach the areas she wanted to fly to. But today.

Kari was in a good position at 9000 ft at 5.30pm, the start of the hill country and a perfect cloud street lined up infront of her she was in unknown territory now. This place looked like a retrieval area from hell. Underneath was no mans land and above was some sort of heaven.

Curt Warren’s word of wisdom came over the radio and told her just to fly and not to worry about what lay beneath and the lack of roads. Kari thought, “Oh God, the lack of roads, but I´m tired of worrying about it I’m going for it.”

She worked light lift, drifting and eventually meeting up with a small road network. A little relieved which she again relaxed into her flying knowing in the back of her mind she could be found on a road, by someone. Kari was happy having Don Boucher as her driver trailing her never too far behind. Apparently this guy was a legend during the encampment.

At 230 km Kari as low again but still drifting but at this stage she knew she’d got her record back. Although with hopes of 300 miles, so late in the day it seemed unlikely. With an open distance record of 250 miles and a declared distance goal of 219 miles Kari was relieved, happy and satisfied. Finally…

Kari took off for Europe shortly after and has been cruising around there competing in the Red Bull Speed Run in Kitzbühel and attending the Red Bull Vertigo in Switzerland where we caught up. She’s cruising the world in search for a better flight now. If you see her, have a chat. You might learn something.

Kari’s last thoughts? “Don´t forget that most records have been broken on days that looked pretty average. It’s what you make of it.”

Kari’s website is at www.karicastle.com

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