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Hang Gliding Records

By Dan Johnson, Kitplanes Magazine, April, 2001

What's in a name? A Texas-based event, last summer's World Record Encampment, predicted accurately its own success; two top hang glider pilots set world records for distance flying and broke another record that stood for nearly a decade.

On July 19, Dave Sharp flew his A.I.R. ATOS rigid wing hang glider for an astounding 311 miles (501 kilometers), narrowly beating the long-held record of 308 miles set by another leading competitor, Larry Tudor.

Tudor first broke the magical 300-mile barrier by flying 303 miles in July, 1990. He repeated this achievement, flying 308 miles several years later, but nearly a decade passed with no other pilots exceeding 300 miles. That unique status was shattered thanks to participants at the World Record Encampment 2000.

Sharp flew more than 9 hours to earn his world record. The one that people will remember is the 311-mile flight of straight distance, but along the way he also set a record for a flight to a declared goal of 203 miles.

One interesting aspect of Sharp's spectacular journey is that, according to fellow pilot Davis Straub, "The day was almost completely blue." This means the sky was clear, lacking cumulus clouds that mark thermals where there is enough moisture.

Not One, But Two New Records

Instead of holding up for a decade like Tudor's 1990 flight, Sharp's achievement on July 19 lasted days. Less than one month later, Davis Straub flew his similar ATOS glider for a new world record of 347 miles.

Straub's flight last August 9 smashed through all previous barriers in what he describes as a fairly easy flight. "It didn't seem that hard, and in fact, I enjoyed the whole flight," he wrote.

Faster than Tudor and Sharp, Straub averaged 35 mph. But between thermals he reported speeds of 55-60 mph and even hit 70 mph.

To pilots accustomed to sitting comfortably in their cockpit seats, flying prone for 10 hours may not seem pleasant. But pilots who log long flights in hang gliders reach a point of conditioning that allows them to complete these flights that must be considered athletic achievements.

Davis has been particularly persistent in search of the long flight, having earlier set the East Coast distance record with a 211-mile flight from Orlando's Wallaby Ranch hang gliding park. Doing so, he picked up a $1000 check that Wallaby owner Malcolm Jones had offered for the first flight into Georgia. That prize had also remained unclaimed for many years.

Straub is a writer who posts an almost daily account of hang gliding activity in contests and long flying efforts. He supports his record attempts by writing computer books such as Windows 98, and More Windows 98, published by IDG Books.

Straub's amazing passage took him north from Zapata, Texas, past Laredo, where he crossed Interstate 35. Miles of little civilization and endless mesquite trees eventually took him across Interstate 10 toward Sterling City, northwest of San Angelo.

Getting to Know Zapata

Zapata County Airport probably isn't the first guess you'd make if you were trying to determine the best starting point for hang glider world records.

South of Laredo, Texas, only an hour north of the Mexican border, Zapata may become a haven for these kinds of record flights. The reason relates to high pressure systems that form over the Gulf of Mexico. The west side of the high creates south winds that can carry hang gliders north for hundreds of miles.

Of course, weather guessing is an art form well known to pilots, and estimating the right weather in Zapata may be no easier than in any other location in the U.S. However, thanks to one man, Zapata was chosen ahead of time as the right place to base the World Record Encampment.

Weather garu and soaring technowizard Gary Osaba gets the credit for picking Zapata, according to Sharp and Straub.

Osaba got started many years ago as a hang glider manufacturer (for a company with the unlikely name of Pliable Moose). Since then, he added light sailplanes to the mix of aircraft he flies, and he developed a well regarded soaring technique called microlift. He works at staying aloft in lift too light for conventional sailplanes and at altitudes many soaring pilots find unlikely; one substantial flight never saw him much above 300 feet.

From his computer in Kansas, Osaba calculated that Zapata was the place from which to start a world record flight. He looked over the entire country and settled on south Texas due to the Gulf weather systems that appear regularly.

Though Straub was careful to thank many who assisted his attempt (including his wife, Belinda, who drove many miles to retrieve him), he felt so indebted to Osaba that he declared, "Gary is the person most responsible for making it possible to set this record."

World Record with a "Beater" Glider

An irony of Sharp's first record is that the entire flight was done with a glider that was "never meant to leave the shop," according to ATOS importer Peter Radman of Altair Hang Gliders.

Badly damaged in shipping, the glider was pieced together solely as a means of testing repairs to the composite D-cell that gives the wing its main structure. Yet Sharp accepted the glider and, as they say, the rest is history.

The ATOS glider both men used comes from Germany and was designed by Felix Rhule and his A.I.R. company. Also the designer of the prior rigid-wing success story, the Exxtacy, Rhule is held in high regard by Sharp, Straub and many others who pilot the flying wing.

Straub is presently pondering a World Record Encampment 2001. Will the 400-mile record be broken? "It's possible," he says. We may not need to wait another decade for that barrier to fall.



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Copyright © 2001- by Dan Johnson