I join many of the hang gliding forums around the country in search of good flying stories that I can learn from. Last year I read the HHPA forum post regarding Mick, Robin and Niki pioneering XC flying out of Refugio, TX. I have been an XC pilot since 1983 and ventured downwind nigh 20 years before I was coaxed into flying competitions by my mentor Jim Lamb. His reasoning was sound in that it would make me a better XC pilot. I did have some success previously, flying 100 miles three days in a row in 1987 from Whiskey Peak in Wyoming and then topping that off a week later in post frontal conditions in Illinois by flying 176 miles. This was the longest flight ever (unofficial) off of tow on a flex wing. Fifteen years later I claimed the east of the Mississippi River flex wing record by being the first to ever fly over 200 miles (213). So when Mick told me more about the big flight (180 miles) that Robin had out of Refugio, my interest was piqued to go there and check it out myself. Thankfully, I received an invite and jumped at the chance. My friend John Enrietti a former hang glider pilot and now super driver from Chicago volunteered to haul my butt down there and then chase me all over Texas. I was stoked because this guy is really good at it, which removes one huge distraction when undertaking such a task. I went there with the goal of flying 500km (310 miles) as there have only been nine pilots in the world who have flown this distance. It takes alot of work to prepare for a big flight especially in the oppressive 100 degree heat during this time of year. I spoke with my trainer several times on what I could do from an exercise, fuel and hydration perspective to ward off fatigue and dehydration for the expected 10 hours in the air and worked toward that end before I left on July 14th. Here’s most of the equipment that I needed for the trip.
2 meter radios, batteries and battery packs, camera, chargers, two camelbaks, instruments, spare zipper, catheters, vacuum bags, tools, tape, velcro, Tailwind and Skratch energy powders, energy gels, Stinger wafers, knee pads and ankle braces.
We arrived on Saturday night and went to the airport on Sunday afternoon to help Gregg and Kim set up their BMW powered North Wing Mustang trike. I had hoped to get in a test flight however the conditions and timing weren’t quite right for me. I still had a number of things to do to get prepared for the first day and decided to take care of them instead.
Day 1: Most of the pilots were there and we set up in anticipation of a really good day. I didn’t launch until 12:13 even though the conditions were good much earlier. Winds were easterly most of the day and started out at 7mph but increased up to 14mph near Kenedy to the northwest. My goal was to fly to Hondo as the forecast models showed huge overdevelopment in the late afternoon up on the Edwards Plateau. Winds turned to the SE at Pleasonton and stayed relatively strong but I could see the front migrating south which made it a race to see if I could get to Hondo before it did. Climbs all day had been in the 500-600fpm range. The shade from the front was now directly in my path but I thought I could still make it in. At 25km out I hit 800-900fpm that was super smooth and took it to 6300’msl when I saw lightning up toward Hondo. I turned tail and ran back SE to a good landing. Flight time was 5:19 and OLC distance was 208km.
My new T2C144
Day 2: Stoked after a good flight, I was keen on getting prepared earlier to take advantage of the early part of the day. Still didn’t have my act together but managed to take off at 11:45 in good conditions. Mick and I had picked a task to Castroville just west of San Antonio and then on up to Big Spring. The climbs were similar to the day before, 3000’ early and slowly increasing to almost 7000’ and climbrates were again in the 500-600fpm range. However, the wind direction was SE the preferred direction and the velocity increased to 15 mph much earlier. I neared Castroville and checked the time, it was already 3:30, I figured that I needed to be here an hour and a half earlier to meet my goal of getting 500km. I spun it down at the Castroville Airport after 4 hours believing that Wednesday would be even better.and vowing to take off earlier. Flight time was 4:05 and distance was 200km.
Day 3: I use XC Skies and the new soaring weather program Skysight to assess the conditions each morning. I was very hopeful on the day, the winds looked good and the lift and clouds did as well. Unfortunately I didn’t check the CAPE (measure of instability). I was much better prepared today to take an early launch and got off at 10:06 with good clouds over the airport but rain upwind of us. I had two good climbs to base at 3300’, one of which was strong at 500-600fpm. The third thermal was at 150fpm however base had lowered to 2800’ and I could see mist and rainbows in front of me. I had to dive off to the NW away from the rain to the next street that was quite a distance away. This took me toward unlandable terrain. I pushed over the scrub land as far as I dared and didn’t quite get to the cloud. I turned back to an open field near what appeared to be a road about 1 mile from the highway and landed. The road turned out to be for ranch access and the gate was locked so 2 1/2 hours later I finally got out of there. Good thing it was only 100F that day!
View of the sky when you land too early! (courtesy of K. Myrkle)
Day 4: The winds had turned south and were predicted to be light all day. Robin is here today. I pick Bastrop just east of Austin as my goal 200km away (again). I launch 4th so don’t leave until 10:16. I work my way north. Although the thermals are consistent and each cloud is working, I can’t get above 3500’ for the first 2 hours so it is painfully slow in the 8 mph winds. Northeast of Goliad I run into Nate and we do a few turns together before I take off for some better looking clouds. At 12:40 I hit 650fpm and climb above 4500’. The thermal spacing is good but I seem to be missing the climbs in successive clouds. It gets frustrating to not connect and again slows me down. The only positive is that the top of the lift continues to rise as the peak heating part of the day arrives. I continue to drive downwind and hear from Robin that he is about 10km ahead. He decides to spin down north of I-10. I continue on and am hitting 600-700fpm but base has only risen to 5800’. North of I-10 I top out above 6000’ a couple times and finally have Bastrop on glide. I circle over town land in a big open field on the highway south of town. Two minutes later John pulls in to the entrance! It is so good having a good driver. Flight time was 6 hrs and distance was 221km.
View From Cloudbase (courtesy of K. Myrkle)
Day 5: I’m gaining experience here. It is clear that the cloud streets start early. The question is, how early can we start and stick. If we launch too early and can’t stick we may not be able to get back to the airport for another flight so it’s a real challenge to pick the right time. The winds are south this morning but are predicted to go SE early in the afternoon so Robin, Glen and I choose a task west of San Antonio to Castroville, then Utopia and hopefully up on to the Edwards Plateau. I launch at 9:48 and slowly climb to 2300’. The next thermal is 300fpm and takes me to 2500’. After the third thermal I’m back to 2300’, it looks like the game is on. I’m drifting to the north at 6mph and know that I need to head west to stay on track. I cross from one cloudstreet to the next and sink like a stone down to 900’. I unzip preparing to land soon but see birds soaring further west and get to their lift just in time. Eighteen minutes later I top out at 2800’. I decide against crossing streets and slowly drift downwind off of the planned course line. Two hours into the flight the top of the lift rises above 3000’ for the first time. Two more good thermals and it is now over 3800’. I hear from Robin and Glen, they were able to take a good line to the NW right out of the airport and were north of Beeville. My confidence returns after several good climbs, I am now 26km east of course line and decide to head WNW to get back on track and away from San Antonio airspace to the north. The winds have shifted to the SSE, the climbs are now stronger in the 600fpm range and top of the lift has risen over 5000’ making the trek back to courseline easier. The cumulus clouds are large and are running in streets to the NNW. Crossing them is much easier now and Robin and Glen are just off to my WSW. We connect with strong thermals and high clouds (6800’) every 5-10km and head past Kelly Airforce Base to our east. The lift is noticeably stronger and more turbulent. I see a massive dust devil churning the ground in front of me. I take the thermal that it is marking up over 6000’ and push on toward Castroville. We have been in the air for over 5 hours so unanimously decide to land there so we can get back to Refugio early and relax before the last day. The glide into goal is very turbulent, there are dust devils all around which makes landing at the airport a daunting task. I circle around the airport and see these massive columns of dust off to my west, south and east. Just as I am coming in on final I see the large wind indicator swing to the east and land too slow in a thermal breaking off, skidding in on my base tube but no worse for wear short of a few scrapes. Whew! Glen and Robin come in and have excellent landings. Flight time: 5:33 and distance 208km.
Day 6 the last day: Gregg and Kim have done an awesome job all week. Gregg’s BMW powered trike is a pleasure to tow behind and launches have gone flawlessly. We have south winds again today with a better velocity early but slowly dying down as the day wears on. We all decide to take the northerly route around the east side of Austin as we had done previously. I set a waypoint at Bastrop and then Draughton Miller Airport in Temple with a goal at Mineral Wells to get 500km. Launch was at 9:58 and Gregg gave me a high tow as no one else was quite ready yet. Three days earlier he towed me high between the clouds on a surreal tour from the topside of the cumulus. Today he took me high to the SE as the clouds were sparse and quickly evaporating. I released and found a climb at 200fpm to 3000’ in 15mph south winds. The clouds were quick to dissipate so it was important to pick those that were just beginning to form rather than in full bloom. Climbs topped out above 3500’ by 11:00. The winds were holding at 10-15mph and I was about 35km out after an hour. Glen was about 10km to my east and picked an awesome cloudstreet that held together for most of the day. Soon he was pulling away as I was zigzagging down wind trying to pick the best looking clouds. Robin meanwhile got a later start and was rapidly closing the gap on my same line. The winds slowly diminished to 10-12 mph but we were all still making good progress. North of Cuero, the climbs were above 5000’ however a bit of a blue hole had to be crossed to get to the good cloudstreets. Once there, the climbs improved to 700fpm and topped out over 7000’ at base. Robin passed me at this point and we ran into high cirrus that completely shaded the ground. Putting on the brakes, I crept across the shade under a good cloudstreet but no lift. I continued north looking for any kind of climb to get me back to the sunshine and eventually hit 100fpm at 1500’ above the ground. It improved to 300 and then 500fpm getting me over 5000’ so I could dive for the nice looking clouds in the sunshine. Glen meanwhile worked his excellent line to the east and was now 37km in front. He was battling sore shoulders and eventually decided to land around 250km out. Robin made it through the shade as well and was slowly pulling away. The clouds worked much better now with a couple climbs at 700fpm to 8100’ near Temple. The clouds were rapidly drying up with just a few wispies to the north. I picked a line to the west of Waco and thought I was going to land when I spied some birds that were climbing. I clawed my way back up from 1500’ and made it over 6500’ again. From there a line of little wispies marked my way and I spent the next 1 1/2 hours slowly climbing up and gliding until I left the last one and went on final glide landing 20km north of Waco. I moved my glider to the edge of the field, dropped a pin and made two quick calls only to see John pull up next to me! He is one amazing driver! Incredibly I felt very good after such a long flight. I actually had fuel left in the tank! Flight time was 9:34 and distance was 403km.
It was an amazing week and a tremendous learning experience! I can’t close without thanking the people that support my habit and the need to scratch the itch; my wife Sue who is my biggest supporter and puts up with my dreams to shoot for the horizon and beyond, my buddy John Enrietti super driver, Gregg and Kim Ludwig who supplied the tug and towed us up each day, the Refugio airport manager Ruth who allowed us to use their fine facility, Matt Bouback who provides the forum and the drive to get me into shape (kicks my butt) on a regular basis, my friends at Wills Wing who build one superb glider and to my family and friends for pulling for me to go long!
Although I didn’t meet my 500km goal, I did set two personal bests on the last day for duration and distance. Also my totals for the week were 1268km and 31 hours 17 minutes which rank right up there with Forbes, Big Spring and Whiskey Peak in Wyoming way back in 1987. I am leaving this place feeling confident that I have the skills and stamina to break off a really long flight in the future. I only hope that I get an opportunity to fly from Refugio again next year.
Oh and as of two days ago, I’m a grandpa again too! Livin’ the dream……..
Lessons learned for the week:
1. I need to maximize the front end of the day. Based on the last day when cloudbase was 3000’ at 10:00, It is apparent that the clouds are working much earlier. On the last day they were probably over 2000’ at 9:00.
2. I need to do a better job of searching under the clouds for stronger lift. If climbs were stronger in previous thermals, it is reasonable to assume they will continue to be of the same strength if not more so.
3. I need to do a better job of exiting the thermals. I tend to hold on too long in weak lift at the top wasting precious time. This time (and distance) adds up over a long flight.