Comps and Events, News

Hang gliding’s first 500 km flight: Viva Zapata!

Wednesday 6 September, 2000

It’s hot, dusty and big… scenes from Zapata, paragliding and hang gliding mecca

On 19 July 2000, Dave Sharp became the first person to fly over 500 km on a hang glider. He flew his Air Atos north out of a small unknown town in Texas, USA. Only a few weeks later, Davis Straub reset the record at 347 miles, also out of Zapata. This is the story Dave Sharp’s flight, as published in Cross Country magazine edition 70.

FOR THE PAST 10 years I have stayed busy on the competitions circuit, but this year my personal schedule would afford me only the Wallaby Open. In an effort to please my sponsors I offered to try and fly an open distance record as some compensation for the meets I was missing. A serious attempt for a record is something I’ve never tried before.

A few weeks after Wallaby, Davis Straub invited me to join a group set on breaking Larry Tudor’s world record of 495 km, flown in July 1994. Gary Osoba, who has 12 sailplane world records to his name, was organising a ‘World Record Attempt Encampment’ at a place called Zapata, on the extreme southern edge of Texas.

Gary is a self-taught micrometerology guru, and has studied the Texas area for the last five years and was excited about its record potential. During mid-summer, the Bermuda high pressure sits in the Gulf of Mexico and pumps up moist marine air that converges with the hot Mexican dessert air forming strong south winds with endless clouds streets over southern Texas.

During June and July I travelled down through New Mexico and Utah. I had five flights over 200 miles, but all were ended prematurely by over development: 8000 m lighting-shooting Godzillas of cu-nims that served as the reception party for those who made it into the late afternoon.

Five days before the Encampment I arrived at Hobbs, New Mexico, the site of Larry Tudor’s 1994 world record, and flew my Atos 415 km to Stratford, Texas, to break the Class 2 world record. I got a few congratulations, but one particular comment from a hang gliding internet junky stuck in my mind; ‘Larry Tudor just pushed the snooze button on his alarm and rolled over and went back to sleep. Wake that boy up!’

Two days later I drove to Zapata county Airport. Now as a good competition pilot I’ve be privileged enough to travel to some spectacular parts of the world. But I’ve never been anywhere quite like Zapata, Texas. The day I arrived it was 106 F. Desert, punctuated only by Mesquite trees.

Gary met us and tried to reassure us that ‘it’s a dry heat’. Sure, like spending time in a pizza oven with 32 km blowing in your face. Davis Straub (Atos), Dustin Martin (Litespeed) and I took some tows and climbed out to 2000 m to enjoy a scenic tour of the desolate country. Gary Osoba tried to milk out some slack in the static tow and crushed his landing wheel, rendering his Carbon Dragon helpless.

On our second day, we set a goal of 346 km. Davis got a 30 minute headstart as we messed about retrieving the rope from over a fence, and nearly made it all the way. Things were not so good for me. The heat and the excitement became overwhelming and for the first time in my life I was airsick and landed at 145 km. Dustin got lost and flew 180 km. I didn’t sleep well the following night and decided not to fly the next day, despite it looking like it might be the best day. Dustin did and flew his personal best: 322 km.

Day 3. Wake up Larry. It’s time to start flying again! Gary set a 322 km declared goal task to Barksdale, Texas. It did not look like a record day but with a little work I felt the task might be possible.

Belinda Straub towed me up at 11:15 a.m. Despite the 30 km/h winds, the lift was smooth with well defined thermals. I wanted to leave with at least 1000 m AGL, so I hung out over the airport for 30 minutes before heading on course at 11:45 a.m.

The first 80 km was mostly easy going, and Davis and I stayed up at around 1100 m. At the junction of Interstate 35 and Hwy 83 we got down low, but then caught a 6 up, which broke through the inversion to 1370 m it would be easy going down Hwy 83 until past Crystal City.

I got a low save from about 100 m off the higher ground, but was rewarded by a boomer that took me to the hill country where I would start getting higher gains. Soon I arrived at my declared goal. After shooting the FAI sector I continued down Hwy 55. At The valley rises up to the Pass before Rock Springs, Texas. I still had 1000 m agl to spare: just enough to clear the pass and land in the high plateau of Rock Springs.

At the top of the Pass I found another 6 up and took it to 2000 m. I cleared the town of Rock Springs with a few thousand. Hwy 55 forced me to make a hard cut across to the west, 90 degrees off my northly track. It was nearly 6:00 p.m. and I was 358 km out. I needed one more thermal to break my world record flight of 415 km from Hobbs. Despite the blue conditions and the 15 mph tail wind I decided to make a serious commitment and follow some dirt roads that may end up causing a lengthy retrieve.

I got within 300 m agl again and found another good climb to 1600 m. I saw some distance cumulus about 35 km over I-10 and was confident of reaching them. But my confidence quickly faded as I flew through large areas of 6 down. Getting an 8:1 glide I would not make it, but some more ranches appeared and I set my course for a good field near a road that leads to I-10. I was at 387 km out from Zapata, and as I got near the field I felt some vibrations and some zero sink.

I did a search, went back into wind and did some turns in some 100 up. I lose it and return back up wind. My Flytec showed a solid 300 fpm climb, 100 m above the ground. My eyes were open but I might as well have been blind, I was using all my concentration in visualising the thermal, I locked my Atos right in the core and never missed a turn. It was my most important thermal ever; I knew if I could top it out I could make it to those beautiful long lasting high clouds.

At 3100 m agl, I cruised over I-10, and had to cross another section of tiger country. I was at 419 km and I looked at my Flytec to see it was already clock 7 p.m. I was thinking thoughts I’ve never had before: is 500 km on the cards? Just then I found lift under that brutally honest and patient cloud street. I took it up to 2900 m.

Normally I would drift with something like this till the bitter end for max distance but I was worried about landing after sunset, as I was not sure if the record would be valid if I landed after sunset. I left the lift long before cloudbase and headed for the next one, only finding light sink with some lifty areas.

My GPS was showing 443 km, and I couldn’t take the slow countdown. I tried hard avoiding looking at my GPS as time was going so slow but the sun was going down fast! It was a race against time. My GPS showed a small town 35 km up hwy 277.

The sun was low now it was 8:00 p.m., I figured the sun would set at 8:20 p.m., and looking at my GPS the distance read 459 km. I was at 900 me agl, and I found a 1.5 up, I worked it for another 600 m and bail out as it reaches 300 up, I saw the GPS at 487 km and started to pull in. At 493 km I stuffed the bar;

I could not see San Angelo but farm fields were appearing, I picked one out next to hwy 277. I zoomed over a farm house and landed cross wind in an easterly 5 mph wind. I pulled out my camera and took a few pictures of the Sun (5 minutes before sunset) with my glider in back ground 501 km south from Zapata. Allen Gully of San Angelo pulled up in his Jeep Cherokee and greeted me with a beer.

Meanwhile Gary Osoba and Davis had contacted the Sheriffs department in three counties. They thought I might have landed back around the 350 km marker in some canyon in the hill country. I called Gary on my cell phone and reported my location. He couldn’t believe it; he was so excited that we’d both realized our dreams.

Now I am convinced that with higher performing gliders like the Atos, 500 km will happen at least a couple times a year. Viva Zapata!

Special thanks to Gary Osoba, Davis and Belinda Straub
Current class 1 record: 495 km, Larry Tudor
Previous class 2 record: 415 km, Dave Sharp

Name: Dave Sharp
Job: comp pilot, Atos rep, school bus driver
Lives: New Mexico, USA
Age 34
Sponsors: AIR, Altair, Icaro, Center of Gravity, Flytec

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