Deutscher Gleitschirm- und Drachenflugverband e.V.


Dustin Martin (USA) fliegt 764 km in Zapata/Texas

The first time I flew a hundred miles was on a practice day before one of the old Wallaby comps.  It seems like a long time ago.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I ended up in the same field as Mike Barber and as we talked I remember part of me feeling in awe of the distance, and part of me feeling slightly disappointed and wanting more.  The following two weeks were spent in the wake of guys like Jim Lee and Manfred and dozens of other great pilots.  The hook was set that year, ‘99.  

Three years earlier I was running down the training hill in northern Arizona in the shadow of Mt. Elden, and in the taller shadows of Bob Thompson, Hans Heidrich, Andy Rockhold, John Johnson, and other legendary pilots of those days.  Training was a little looser in the nineties around here and I was able to progress quickly without much reigning in or too much bothering with safety and procedure.  I had a good instructor and a good group of mentors and managed to make it through unscathed, physically at least.  

My very first cross country flight sent me over the back of Mingus mountain.  Eight miles.  Landing with friends, I was stoked beyond belief.  Then came the runs to Sedona, over the rim, my first hundred.. Times were good.  Kenny Brown called me one day and introduced himself.. Told me I had a bright future and offered not only a glider and a harness, but the deal of a lifetime for a 19 year old fresh to flying - I would drive the Moyes America van across the country on a demo tour, visiting site after site, then cap off the season with a trip to Australia for their comp season.  I was dreaming.  Even if I showed no promise, Kenny said I did so it must be true!  As it turns out, believing unwaveringly in your ability is the first and most important step toward flying well.  And far.  My initiation to comps and XC, thanks to many pilots and supporters, brought me to my first Zapata summer in good shape.

Gary Osoba, a pilot I didn’t know up to that time, called me in 2000 and told me I had to visit this waste land of a town in forgotten south Texas because he thought with the right pilots the record would fall there without too much resistance.  He had already talked to Kenny and I even got a call from the NAA records guy with encouraging words.  Who did they think I was?  Somebody was pulling strings because, up to that date, I hadn’t done too much in the way of impressive distance.  Someone saw potential.  I was eager and showed up and blazed out, afterburners on from ten in the morning until landing, usually in the 100-200 mile range.  Dave Sharp, in an ATOS, fired away with a 300+ miler not long into the week and I began to question what I was doing wrong.  Finally I ended up stranded at 202 miles, on what would be my best flight that season, hitched into town with the Border Patrol, and waited for my derelict driver to show up the next day.  

Preparation was not in my bag of tricks and I re-enacted the crime a couple years in a row before taking some time off and assessing the situation.  I realized I needed a driver.  Not just a driver - a dedicated, just-for-me driver.  Next, I needed a glider, no - THE glider.  Fresh from a ridge racing comp with the winning T2C, I was confident in the wing.  I needed a harness I wouldn’t suffer with the whole flight.  Nene Rotor had just built me a harness that fit me like a glove and made me look like a human bullet.  The stars were lining up.  A functional retrieve car, working radio, spare battery, extra water, food, etc, and I was ready for another try.  

2008 was going well.  I was bagging a lot of new sites in far off countries, honing a more relaxed flying style, gaining confidence bit by bit - the time was now or never.  I called Laura, a girl I met in a supermarket parking lot a couple years earlier, and asked if she wanted an all expenses paid vacation.  I may have stretched the details of the location a bit.  She agreed, to my surprise, and I rushed to prepare my gear.  July rolled around and we met up in Texas and settled in for the week of attempts at a new record.  Andre Wolf, Davis Straub, and a few others were there and waiting for the day.  First day out and I landed at the 10 mile mark while Andre made nearly record pace to the ~240 mile mark.  I got sunburned and spent the afternoon questioning my manhood.  Andre took so long on his retrieve that he was too tired to fly the next day.  I launched in decent conditions on day two, which became epic conditions, and managed a 410 mile, 660 kilometer flight.  The entire last hour of the flight I was anticipating a record but was stonewalled by conditions after Big Spring.  It just wasn’t going to happen that day.  One more thermal would have snagged the record, but I was too slow getting to that point to take advantage of earlier conditions.  Laura was there so quickly she was able to hold my nose wires as I walked to the road in the windy Texas plateau conditions.  We drove back.  Then the weather deteriorated.  It always does.  

I felt so ready in 2008.  It felt like it had to happen.  It was sure to happen. But it didn’t.  I was a little bent by the outcome and retreated to Quest to forget about things.  

Four years passed and the more you learn, the more you look back and realize how much you didn’t know.  I was in my shop working on a new instrument pod when Jonny Durand called me up to ask why I wasn’t coming to Zapata to give him a run for his money.  It was more of a heckling call than an invitation but it was enough of a nudge to at least look at the weather when I hung up.  The next week’s wind forecast was unreal.  I really didn’t want to spend the energy or money on one more season in Zapata.  I called Gary, rechecked the weather, called Wills Wing who agreed to support the adventure, and then somehow committed to the event.  Twenty four hours later I was driving southeast.  

I had learned enough over the years to know that my equipment always had to be in top shape and ready to go, so the Wills Wing T2C 144, Covert harness, and radio were in perfect order.  But with such short notice a driver would be tough.  The best I could manage was a loose arrangement with a pilot who lives at the halfway point - halfway between Zapata and 500 miles.  He would receive my spot tracker data as I flew, and if I made it past 200 miles he would begin the chase.  It felt like a weak spot in my armor, but as it turns out those first few years without a driver in Zapata were great preparation for the challenge.

Besides having the kit for the job, the driver somewhat sorted, and years of experience in Zapata, one ingredient may have played a very important role during the last hour of flight - I spent this spring and summer training for a long hike that I ultimately didn’t do because of an over-training hip injury, but aerobically and endurance - wise, I was in the best shape of my life.  The last crucial hour of the flight I was fresh and relaxed, still focused on maximizing the conditions.  Lastly, I have no fear of failure.  I have failed every year at the WRE to achieve the ultimate goal (500 miles), so there is absolutely no pressure battling me during the flight.

Most of my flying these days is in the half dozen or so competitions that I have time for during the season.  Those of us who compete know without a doubt the benefits of competition to our flying skill set.   We don’t need to convince each other of this fact; it’s there for us to see as we progress, or not, during the season.  We know that to consistently close a course in the shortest possible time, whether it’s headwind, tailwind, crosswind, stormy, blue, streeting, straight out, triangle, or whatever, we will have to fly in the quickest, most efficient manner, with the least possible risk of landing.  You have to race. 

It’s no coincidence that the record has been held almost exclusively by competition pilots.  It seems to contradict the recreational pilots’ popular view that to race is to take chances.  It’s exactly the opposite!  To race is to minimize risk, spend more time high, less time low, make few or no low saves, climb in the strongest lift in the area, and glide through the weakest sink possible.  When Manfred and Mikey flew the first 400+ mile flights in history, I simply didn’t have the experience necessary to piece together that caliber of flight.  They didn’t drift along working every bit of lift and let the tailwind do the work.  They raced the entire 11 hours.  It’s the only way.

So then, I arrived on July 1st, fairly well prepared, well rested, and with four years more experience since my last Zapata campaign.  Coming from Arizona, as I stepped out of the car at the airport, the 105 degree heat was a cool relief from the 118 I had left behind me.  With no one around, I was able to set up my glider and harness in peace, mount my strobe, figure out my spot tracker, and change all my batteries.  Despite all the preparation, I still wouldn’t be ready in time to take advantage of the next day’s epic forecast.  

The next morning at sunrise the classic over running clouds were there, the wind was more than motivating, and every pilot was busy getting ready.  Somehow, after all the planning, I found myself in a rush with less than an hour before launch trying to manually input airspace reference points into my instruments.  The weather at the airport looked amazing, but I just couldn’t finish in time to get a decent start.  Surprisingly, not a single pilot flew that day.  The wind was quite strong but directly down the course line.  It was lucky that we didn’t, as it rained on course line later in the day and would have only been a tiring and unnecessary practice day.  

We all knew the next day was going to be the day.  Everything was lining up and everybody was prepared for the early start.  When I try to launch by ten, which is normal, I usually end up launching at 10:30.  Taking that into account, I tried to be ready for a 9:30 launch.  At 9:57 am and first in line, I launched behind Russell’s tug into a 15-20 mph wind, crossing the runway from the right and quite turbulent.  Once up a few hundred feet the conditions smoothed out significantly.  For the next hour I just had to relax and stay in the air.  Jonny was next in line and I imagined we would connect around Laredo for some team flying and have a better chance of staying up.  It turned out that we wouldn’t connect until Crystal City several hours later.  

I met Jonny when we were both 19 on the trip to Australia in 1999.  He had a couple years head start on me with flying but we seemed to end up flying together on course a bit.  It was a few years later during the Florida comps where we began flying together a lot more, and on one windy day after a Quest comp we launched and headed north for the east coast record, spending about 90% of the flight side by side.  We weren’t really trying to stay together but that’s how it worked out.  Our flying styles had become more and more similar.  Neither one of us likes to follow anyone in the air, so being together doesn’t slow us down.  It seems that we’re constantly trying to escape the other and the acceleration is noticeable.

So, when we met up in Crystal City after a couple hours of flying, the pace didn’t relax and the goal was still sharp as we used our increased searching power to fan out and race harder.  Right up to 200 miles, we were side by side hopping excellent clouds.  Through the hills and up onto the plateau past Rock Springs I found myself impatiently pushing and occasionally lower than I should have been while Jonny sailed by at cloud base.  Having Jonny there was proof that I could be doing better and needed to slow down and focus.  Half a dozen climbs later I had caught up again and we were side by side blazing under 9000 foot bases over the parched flats around interstate 10.  We were both doing the basic calculations by then - the hours left in the day, the average speed so far, the distance left to the record.  The tailwind had been unwavering in the low to mid twenties all day.  Simply staying in the air until sunset would be enough to break the record.  Continuing to race would shatter it.  

Cloud tops were growing and the sun angle was lowering, increasing the amount of shade on the ground ahead.  It seemed we would have to carefully pick our street and stay high.  We shaded right to a better cloud line, then shortly after, hard left for several miles.  Hoping for a 3-400, I was stunned to run right into a 900 all the way to base after arriving under the street to the left.  Jonny had gambled on the other side of the cloud and got pinched out of the climb in the process.  For the next 3-4 climbs I was averaging 900 up to 10000 feet, while it seemed Jonny was only getting 3-400.  It was after 7pm, a critical time of day to stay high and not fall behind.  After a half hour of seeing and hearing nothing from Jonny, I began to count him out.  

After a decently strong climb to 10000 feet at somewhere past 400 miles, the world record within glide, the day suddenly shut off.  It wasn’t immediately noticeable but there would not be another true climb for the rest of the flight.  Under the broken leftovers of a small cumulus, after not finding the climb I expected, I started orbiting in zero sink.  It was time to go from top gear to first gear in one move.  It was here, drifting in zero sink at 437 miles, watching the GPS to see it click over to 438, that I caught a flash of something on the horizon.  In an instant, the situation changed from being high and alone, breaking the record, to suddenly being wingtip to wingtip with Jonny again, with nothing but an occasional 100 foot climb to determine our fate on final glide.  

Jonny tucked into my circle, probably as stunned as I was to be in zero sink after our recent climbs.  He was busy with his camera, and as we circled past the old record the occasion was duly preserved for the masses.  As each bubble of buoyant air degraded into sink, we would pull cord and go on what felt like final glide, just seconds later running into another patch of positive air.  After a few of these I realized we may be up for quite a while longer.  Sunset would be in half an hour so I reached up to toggle on my strobe, hoping to need it.  Jonny responded by lowering his own strobe on a length of rope.  We circled, broadcasting our presence to anyone who cared to look up from the trackless desert below, most likely entertaining only ourselves.  

I felt a renewed energy in the evening air - no sore muscles, perfectly alert, fully ready to fly another hour.  I glanced over at Jonny and watched as he rocked up and stretched his back and neck.  How could you not feel that way?  I thought of my shoulder straps - they were loosened because I had recently been flying with a jacket in the high climbs of northern Arizona.  Without the cold weather gear, the harness was now a full inch too long.  An alteration that I fortunately forgot to tighten before the flight.  No shoulder pressure, no back pain, no neck stiffness, and I hadn’t unzipped to stretch my legs once during the preceding 10 hours.  I was too focused to give it more thought, but I was as fresh as if I had just launched.  

Jonny’s microphone had failed an hour earlier, so the only clues to his intentions or state of mind were his body language and flying style.  He was ready to leave the zero sink bubbles about one turn before me each time.  The final glide was pulling at him.  Or he was pushing at it.  Now showing a 30 mph tailwind, I was satisfied even with circling in very light sink, but I knew I couldn’t stay behind while Jonny glided ahead.  Even at this time of night, in this sort of lift line he could catch the odd bubble and get a jump on me.  So I reluctantly pulled vg and headed off usually side by side, sometimes just behind.  One climb I stayed behind for one circle before heading out, this time slightly to the left and behind Jonny.  He was working with the GoPro.  There was a surge, a little bumpiness, and as I began to release cord and turn left I was registering nearly 100 fpm.  The sun was halfway below the horizon.  I wrapped it up and began to climb, watching and wondering when Jonny would turn around.  I could see him looking back but only after a couple turns did I see him spin around and head back my way.  We were both surprised that there would be another climb. 

It was a true bubble.  By the time Jonny was circling with me he was 300 feet below.  The climb disintegrated after a dozen turns.  Final glide was now.  There was no more lift, just incredibly buoyant air as we passed from the desert over a last row of low cliffs and suddenly into farmland.  We had been over the only road through the desert, and as it squeezed through a pass in the cliffs and straightened out on the farm plateau it was suddenly clear that it was not in line with the low level wind.  There were no obstacles, only open farmland as far as we could see, so I kept my course directly downwind, knowing I would end up in a landable area.  Jonny veered noticeably off my track at about 1000 feet and bucked a slight crosswind to follow the road.  That was the end of our flight together.  I watched behind me and could only make out his flashing strobe as he turned to a landing.  Then I lost him in the darkness.  With a few minutes of gliding left and nothing to do but turn around, I got as skinny as I could and pointed my toes for the final few miles.  As it became clear which field I would end up landing in, I squinted my eyes and saw that I would be on a paved road as well.  Couldn’t have worked out better.  I turned the glider around at about 20 feet to face south and landed in a warm breeze at 8:59 pm.  A 36:1 final glide.

Tim Ettridge was kind enough to pick me up after retrieving Jonny and we spent the next day driving back to Zapata.  The weather fell apart.  It always does.  The forecast was incredible, but the reality was a high cirrus deck shading the southern half of the course line, preventing any long flights that day.  We had nailed the day, and had our way with it.  So many years in Zapata and I only wanted to pull the final maneuver I had never accomplished: to pack up after one huge flight and go home.  So I did.  One day, one flight, the new record, and I was driving home through monsoonal skies.  

Jonny does have one kind of endurance I don’t have, or maybe it’s a determination I don’t have - to fly long flights day after day.  After I went home, he flew repeatedly in excess of 500 km.  He eventually willed a substandard day into submission and took home the declared distance to goal record. 

We both left the 500 mile flight dangling in full reach for a future Zapata campaign.  The only question is who will do it first.  For a change, I’m happy to leave that last 25 miles untouched this time.  Four hundred miles of straight line gliding, 75 miles of circling and drifting, more than 80 thermals, and 11 hours in the harness.  I’m ready for another break before the next Zapata season.