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The following article was published in the 1994 July Edition of Paragliding Magazine

124 Miles, Owens Valley California

On June 11, 1994, Tom Truax (The Sundowner) logged the first 100 mile foot launch paraglider flight in the United States. Tom launched from Walt’s Point just before 10:30 and followed the traditional Hang Glider route; along the Sierra’s, across the valley, up the Whites, and out towards Mina. He landed about 6 PM at the intersection of 360 & 95. The great circle distance, based on coordinates off the San Francisco Sectional, was about 124 statute miles. The Glider was a 29 meter Edel Rainbow. The winds were light, the altitude good, and the thermals strong. 

The Day

I awoke before the alarm, just after 4 am, for a weather check. Flight service had the winds aloft forecast for Bishop, good till 11 am.

Altitude  Direction  Velocity  Temp in C Temp in F  Lapse in F/1000
6000  010  11  NA NA
9000  260 L & V 14 57
12000 260 7 8 46 3.6
18000 220  10  -10 14 5.3

Looked like a strong lapse up above and more stable down below. Reports from Team Topa’s scouts indicated good altitude and light winds the day before. I’d sent my Sensor ahead just in case the winds were up, but it looked like I wouldn’t need it.

After some colorful begging, I managed to get my Honey Bunch (Pam) motivated, and we were on the road from Camarillo by 5. We stopped for breakfast in Mojave and noticed the winds were unusually light, it’s typically blastin from the north-west that time of day. A final pit stop in Lone Pine, then up the hill. I’d had trouble launching my Alcor last July, so we scouted the possibilities out on the points, but nothing looked as good as Walt’s.

We arrived at take-off about 9:30, just in time to see Herb lift off under his Fledge. Launch conditions looked good, cycling in up to 10. It was a bit crowded, but Team Topa had the poll, so they let me up front for the honors. Herb & Rod had launched a bit too early, and were sinking out to the valley. Utilizing a large gaggle of assistants, we got the canopy spread on the edge, and backed down the slide for the lip launch technique. After a couple attempts, we were off and up a bit before 10:30. Initial conditions were pretty mellow, and after finding a core I climbed over 12 and was on course as the first Hang Glider’s got airborne. I was the only paraglider for the day.

I pulled a pretty good glide staying up on the back ledge. I needed some OJT (on the job training) to figure out the first few strong thermals, but after a couple of overwhelming episodes, I started to get the hang of it. Gliders started passing me half way to the Portal, and I’d have course markers ahead the rest of the day. The altitudes got good quick with pilots reporting over 15 early on. Conditions seemed ideal; a light drift from the south in thermals and drift from the west on glide. I dolphined along between 11.5 and 14+, stopping to work up every 2 or 3 peaks. I’d fallen about 15 miles off the lead crossing Onion Valley with 15+. It was pretty easy going with plenty of terrain clearance for comfort. Hit some steep sink on a few glides, but the drift was out towards the valley between thermals.

I thought of crossing at the narrow spot, but opted to let the valley heat a bit more and headed on. Rotor reported topping at 16 and pointed across with company. El Diablo got to 17 before pulling in east bound, and TQ was finding heavy sink on the way out towards Big Pine. I left Tinemaha Peak with a good drift just over 16 and let the Rainbow shine, getting to Big Pine with 10+. Picked up a couple thousand over town and snaked up the river wiggling from one scrap to the next. I tested towards the hills several times, but kept taking the drift back out to the river. Gliders were littered between Big Ears and Gunter, reporting light winds from the south on the deck. Down to 68 behind the airport, I started to pick up a little draw from the hills passing Flynn’s. I climbed back to 8 out front and made a play for a bump just before Gunter..., and connected to altitude. I’d been low for about 45 minutes so I took it up to about 17 because it was sweet and time for a view.

The Whites were easy but strong. It was working better up high, so I stayed between about 12 and 15. Bases looked around 20, and the drift at altitude was still out toward the valley (ideal). Rotor & TQ were off the end of the range by the time I got to White Mountain. The course markers racing the lower points persuaded me to be patient because it was working better up high. I never got below 11. Boundary has some deep canyons, so I climbed up and cut the corner, but not too far back in. I topped over 16 a couple miles past the peak and took a little stretch looking out past Montgomery pass. The last hour had been a real workout.

Lead Chase (Galahad & Bulldog piloting the Bullpen) was catching up as TQ went down in the shade short of Mina. Ground reports were light from the south-east (good), but the course was starting to OD fast. I climbed to 16 over Basalt (just north of the pass) in a fading patch of sun. The late afternoon air was pleasant, buoyant and soothing after a sharp day of rough ridin. Despite the reports of light south-east on the deck, I started to get a push from the west as the development off to my 8 o’clock started to swell. Vierga was forming behind me as I skirted the bulge, drifting east of retrieval past Miller Mountain. I needed one more to get out to the road and caught the last remnant of sun back to 14 thousand a few miles short of 360 & 95.

I thought I had Mina on the glide as the thermal fizzled and I boated north in glassy-smooth shade. A couple of miles before the intersection, I got a rude wake up call. I sharply went from glassy air into free-fall as the canopy was pushed halfway down from above. After a 200 foot drop, I was left in a washing machine with meanest air I’d had all day. I plummeted toward the intersection, fighting for control under a gyrating canopy. Fortunately, I was fresh from a full day of practice. A last transmission to Rotor who was up at Gabbs with Chase on his heals. I out-ran the turbulence with a couple of thousand left crossing the road into Mina, and blundered into a big area of smooth lapse off going up about 300 a minute. The drift wanted to take me out toward Pilot Peak, but without dedicated chase I was hesitant to commit to a long hike (weeeek). As I started to fall out the front of the lapse off, I headed toward Mina and was quickly clobbered by the advancing turbulence. I decided to throw in the towel and turned back for the intersection.

The situation got worse, I’d dug a hole and made a stand in the wrong place. About 1500 off the deck, a dust storm built below as I realized I was on the downhill edge of a ripe and advancing micro-burst. The dust clouds were along the boiling edges of the down blast. It was about a mile in diameter and coming straight at me. At 500 AGL I was parked out and descending into the stronger wind below. The turbulence was wicked as I continued to fight for control of the tucking, twisting, and surging, canopy. I knew I’d need some luck the last 50 feet, but I was taken by the sharply increasing wind speed the last couple hundred feet.

I was backing up at 30 mph 50 ft off the deck and lost a third of the canopy. It twisted off course and surged wildly. I got it under control and into the wind half way till impact and was really covering some real estate. I laid out with my legs behind about 45 degrees and had a square touchdown. I was snapped back as my helmet cracked the ground. Rolling to crawl up the lines in eerie silence, I realized I’d sprung airborne again. Crashing back to the salt, I lost orientation and struggled to claw up the lines amidst roaring chaos.

I got the canopy stabilized after being dragged across 100 yards of dry-salty-evaporation ponds. Surveying the damage...; dripping blood, tattered hand, shredded clothing, and mangled gear. The wind was whipping about 50 and I could sit and rest. Euphoric.

Retrieval

Tombstone shuttled me back to pool side in Lone Pine. He’d landed just up the road and said the conditions were calm minutes before I arrived. Watching from a distance, he thought I was landing downwind. The pool side celebration was under way by the time we arrived. We collected the stories, and Pinky, rested from a day by the pool, drove us home (says she earned lot’s a brownie points). Showered by 1:30, in bed by 2.

Reflections

The Owens is doable in the heat of the Summer, if you get the right day. After the flight I was fatigued from fright, and physically drained. A week later I ache for more. The big air is addicting. We’ll learn the ropes, but it’ll never be safe.

I lucked into ideal conditions. The wind was light, it was working good up high, and the drift was out to the valley on glide going up both ranges. If if if; maybe I should’a gone with the last lapse. I made pretty good time, but still had 2-1/2 hours left. Gabbs should be reachable. If I could come within sight of Mina on a one day shot, the herd should be able to grasp the limits.

Flat land flying is a different game. Pilots will go further off tow. We should recognize foot launch as a sacred category.

The Glider

Speed & glide increase your options and can get you out of trouble, however, canopies are prone to tucking and surging when flown too fast in the turbulence. I didn’t use the speed stirrup all day. If I could choose from a quiver of gliders to suit the day, I’d probably fly a smaller, faster canopy in the bigger air. My Edel Rainbow gave me the glide I needed to cross the valley, and the sink rate to work the scraps. The Rainbow’s performance is impressive, but mostly, I like it’s behavior in the rough air.

Rainbow 28 specs.
Span 11 meters 36 feet
Area 29 sq. meters 310 sq. feet
Aspect Ratio 4.3 

Team Topa / pushin the lead
Code Names
Galahad  Charles Cole
Pinky  Pam Costin
El Diablo Tony Deleo
Methane Dane Jacobs
Tombstone Robert Markert
TQ Todd Quayle
Bull Dog Guy Roetcisoender
Rotor Steve Smith
Sundowner Tom Truax

by Tom Truax