Chasing the Texas Dryline
by Will Gadd

'98, published in Paragliding and Cross Country

In West Texas the dirt is red and heavy, almost sandy. It makes walking
difficult, and it takes a really monster dust devil to lift any of it skyward,
unlike Chelan or other light-dirt sites. I regard myself as something of an
expert on west Texas dirt, as I spent most of my first week of flying in Texas
on the dirt, not in the sky. Scott Johnson, Josh Cohn and I went to Hobbs, New
Mexico, located just on the border between New Mexico and Texas, to try and
set US and world paragliding distance records, but flatland flying is
different; different is not always easy....

It might seem arrogant to simply set up camp somewhere in search of records,
but I'd looked at every site with record-breaking potential I could think of
anywhere in the world, and Hobbs was by far the best (it was also cheap and
relatively local, which helped in qualifying it as the best). Larry Tudor set
the hang gliding declared distance to goal of 303 miles there, and many other
hangs have also had long flights. Paraglider pilots have generally had lousy
luck there, despite several attempts. Tales from the early nineties focused
primarily on backwards landings, tornadoes and desperate dashes away from
super cells. However, Scott and I convinced each other that if we committed
enough time then we could potentially tap into some of the best long-distance
XC conditions on the planet as the hangs and sailplanes have done for years.
Scott is a very experienced XC hang pilot who has taken to paragliding with a
vengeance in the last five years, and his thinking mirrored mine. Josh is
always up for a flying adventure, plus he had more flatland PG experience than
either Scott or me.

Last year I went to the Owens Valley twice, the first time with Josh and Othar
Lawrence and the second on my own, and I ultimately set a new unofficial US record of 138 miles. But my
thinking had changed a fair amount since then. For starters, it's fairly
inevitable that you will throw your reserve sooner or later while flying
paragliders, and the rocky spines of the Sierras are absolutely no place to
ride a reserve onto. The fun could just be starting when you hit a rock wall
2,000 feet high. The winds in the Owens also leave little room for error; if
the winds pick up suddenly, you could be rotored into an early grave fairly
suddenly. A good tailwind is also critical to fly long distance XC on a
paraglider, and in Hobbs you can literally go any direction and remain over
flat fields, reducing a lot of dangers except that of the initial tow. I don't
like towing very much, but you need wind to fly far on a paraglider. In my
mind the math is simple; with no wind, you could go maybe 120 miles in a
six-seven hour flight. But with a 10-20 mph tailwind it's possible to average
30 or more, meaning flights of 160-300+ miles are theoretically possible.
Armed with lots of real enthusiasm for the theory, we'd committed to three
weeks in Hobbs.

On May 20 we arrived in Hobbs, which was fairly underwhelming from an
aesthetic perspective. Hobbs lives and dies on the price of oil as the
thousands of oil rigs scattered around town reflect, but the price of oil has
been dismal for the last ten years. Much of the town is vacant and decaying;
100+ degree heat will make any place look harsh, but the vacant buildings
didn't help the picture much. But the real problem was the sky; normally warm
moist air flows north from the Gulf, where it meets the hot dry plains air and
forms an awesome cumulus line known as the dryline. Previous record flights
had basically been done by getting under this line of clouds and following it
north from Hobbs. Unfortunately, half of Mexico was on fire, and that smoke
was keeping thermal activity to a minimum. No dust devils, no cumulus clouds,
just a horrible gray overcast compounding an already bleak-looking
environment. Our first two days of towing resulted in flights of only 30 miles
(actually, I went less than 10 both days, as flatland flying is something I
obviously didn't know jack about).

Then our luck changed; John Baber, a local powered paragliding pilot, showed
us some awesome Hobbs hospitality and let us stay in his house, in addition to
showing us the better bars in the area. I'm sure we would have left without
his good energy. Soon we were at least having fun hanging with the locals, but
there were no stars at night due to the smoke; we went so far as to break out
maps of the US, figuring driving distances to every possible XC site, but
everything was at least 20 hours away. Our record attempt was literally going
down in choking smoke, so we drank in the western bars and flew short
distances in the haze. The smoke was so bad that the Texas Health Authority
advised everyone to stay inside, and even the hawks seem to have flapped
somewhere else with better thermals.

Day four dawns clearer, and we're back at the airport towing up behind Curt
Graham's indescribable tow vehicle. While I generally dislike towing, Curt is
extremely competent. We'd brought two winches and thought we'd do our own
towing, but it's very comforting to know that the tow operator has seen it all
happen before. It takes some time to educate one another on how to tow our
relatively awkward paragliders, but Curt helps us dial in while we figure out
towing basics. The Hobbs Industrial airport is great for towing because it has
runways facing every possible direction; we'd just line up with the wind and
have at it! I'm initially nervous about towing over a concrete runway because
you can't see dustdevils, but my Cult feels so pressurized under tow that I
finally relax a bit, although I keep releasing in nothing. Towing is a very
different game than foot-launching!

Scott climbs out and drifts off on his first tow, but Josh and I each re-tow
twice before climbing out at a measly 200 fpm. After gaining a few thousand
feet, I get aggravated at the slow climb rate and head off in search of a real
thermal. Josh hangs with it, slowly climbing behind me while I glide
ever-lower. There are small cues just starting to pop on the dryline to the
east of me, so I figure it's happening. I'm wrong, and hit the dirt after only
30 miles while Josh Frisbees over my head. It's hotter than hell on the
ground, but our driver, Brandon, soon shows and collects me. I can't figure
our what I've done wrong; there ought to lift over the brown fields, but I
don't get anything after my initial thermal. Scott dirts it after about 50
miles, and we lose contact with Josh while finding Scott. Cell phones are
critical to retrieve out here, radio range is fairly limited once you're on
the deck. Brandon is good with a GPS, we just call him on the cell phone with
coordinates and he hunts us down rapidly. We try radioing Josh as we follow
the wind to Lubbock, but only get occasional smatterings of static in
response. Later we learn that Josh's radio is on the fritz.

In Lubbock we give up chasing Josh and head to the Outback Steakhouse for
frosty beers while waiting to hear from Josh. It's a long wait, but we don't
want to assume he's found a ride and headed back to Hobbs. The dryline pops
huge over us, with perfect flat-bottomed cues lined up as far as the eye can
see. If Josh is still up he's going big! Finally, I get a voicemail: Josh has
gone 173 miles, shattering my unofficial US record and almost beating the
official world record! I have hours of driving time while we retrieve Josh to
mentally kick myself in the ass for leaving that 200fpm thermal, but I'm
psyched for Josh. We'd come here as a team, and to have someone succeed is
lots better than having nothing to show for our efforts!

While Josh's flight was the longest in the US, his FAI paperwork most likely
wasn't up to speed, so the unofficial US record of less than 100 miles still
stood. Still, we're inspired: It IS possible to fly far here!

The next day is also relatively smoke-free, so again we're towing by 12:00.
Normally it's possible to launch at 10:30 or so according to Curt, but the
smoke isn't letting enough sun through. Josh opts to rest after his epic
flight, so Scott and I are the only ones towing. Again I climb out in a weak
1-2 up, but this time I ride it until it goes to zero at about 10,000 feet,
more than 6,000 feet above the ground. Scott had to re-tow, so I'm alone out
front. I go on glide, and find a really world-class dust devil about 30 miles
out that takes me to 14,000 feet. A lone cloud pops just above me, and I cop a
killer glide out the far side. This is more like it! I confidently go on glide
toward the dry line clouds to the east with the GPS reading over 45, and
confidently manage to glide all the way to the dirt at 70 miles without
hitting so much as a one-up. The heat on the ground is absolutely
mind-addling, but Brandon is again on-scene quickly, and I rapid-pack into the
truck as Scott floats by about 10,000 feet above our sweating heads. There are
few more conflictive feelings than watching someone succeed brilliantly while
you're on the dirt.

Brandon I play Scott some Korn over the radio to keep him motivated as he
bounces from cloud to cloud on his Firebird Flame. Massive dust devils rip the
heavy Texas dirt into the air all around us, and Scott is soon sounding more
than casually hypoxic as be bounces along at more than 12,000 feet above the
ground. After 141 miles he lands near Nazareth Texas, which is amazing to me:
on a DHV II glider he has the second-longest flight in US paragliding history!
Because Josh's barograph isn't certified yet, Scott now holds the official US
record. We're psyched on the long drive back to Hobbs, although I'm pissed at
myself for dirting it yet again. Scott tells me that sink often sets up in
long streets on the flats, which makes sense but is hard to see without
clouds. Typically, the dryline clouds have been forming to the east of us.
Josh and Scott both managed to get to those clouds and fly them on their
flights, while I have yet to be anywhere near a cloud street. Scott tells me had
drifted in zeros for almost an hour during the time I'd sunk out. I kick
myself in some old bruises thinking about those zeros I'd flown through...

The next day the smoke is present, but not too thick. I manage a nice 70 miler
before being forced out of the sky due to overdevelopment, but I'm very happy
with the flight. I was finally starting to really feel and see the flatland
air. At one point I got down to within about 150 feet of the ground, but I
could absolutely tell there would be a thermal off an oil well, and sure
enough I locked on a barely visible dusty and climbed out. The trick with dust
devils to get absolutely, fully committed. If you don't believe in your
ability to climb in a column of rising air about the size of a tennis court
then you won't. I start to believe. That evening the weather news is full of
tornado alerts; one actually touched down on the course I'd flown, so I felt
good about my decision to spiral to the deck near a large cell that seemed to
want my carcass more than usual. I've never felt lift like that before,
absolutely massive areas of 1000+.

Unfortunately I landed fairly far from a road and have a dehydration epic
staggering out. There are only a few places around Hobbs without roads, and as
usual I'd found one. Fortunately, Brandon has cold beer in the retrieve truck
or I might have died.

The next two days I manage flights of 131 and then 145 miles, which is good
enough for another new US record. But more importantly I feel like I've
crossed some sort of mental barrier in my flying. I somehow am sensing when to
fly straight and when to turn, which way the thermals are drifting (often
across or even against the very strong winds), and generally feeling
bird-like. Those with thousands of flying hours perhaps feel this way often,
but for me it's a first. It might seem like hocus-pocus self-bullshit, but I
swear I could tell what was happening in the air in a way I've never
experienced before. If nothing else, that feeling was worth this trip.

May 30th again looks good, although I'm feeling a bit wasted from all the
flying and long retrieves. We'd commonly get back to Hobbs well after
midnight, then get to the airport early to prep all the gear. We'd all
developed better systems for eating and drinking enough in flight; for
example, Gummi Bears are a poor food choice, they tend to scatter when you rip
the package open with cold hands, and it's better to put your beverage de
choix (Red Bull cut with water for me) in a water bottle rather than trying to
open the can, it gets messy in turbulence.

I released at about 1,000 agl, found a weak thermal and drifted N/NE with it,
the now-familiar oil fields slipping by slowly as the GPS was only reading
30-35 on the downwind glides. Scott towed shortly afterward, and chased me on
our course toward Denver city. Conditions were relatively weak, with the
climbs ending at under 11,000 feet, but the winds picked up. Strangely, they
were 30+ on the ground but only 10-15 at altitude. Scott landed near Johnson,
TX, and had an epic with the strong ground winds. I heard him radio that he
was landing by Brandon, and then nothing. I radioed Brandon to ask what was
up, and he said Scott was lying in the field but seemed okay. Panicked, I
shouted at Brandon to help Scott. A long few minutes later Scott radioed that
he was okay, but had been unable to pack his glider up until Brandon got
there. He'd done a  human-plow maneuver while landing backwards in the strong
wind, but at least the ground was flat and he wasn't hurt.

Shortly after 14:00 the day really turned on, and I reached my best altitude
of over 15,000 feet. I headed slightly north from my previous course to make
sure I wouldn't be blown into Reese Air Force Base or Lubbock Airport
airspace. Curt Graham had informed that the airspace was no longer an Military
Operating Area as the base had been closed, but I didn't want to take any
chances! The air at this point was very good, I was able to crab a bit
sideways to the wind under some nice clouds while not losing much altitude.
Scott had a visual on me for part of this time, which was nice because if I
had to land I wanted a ground crew there in the strong conditions! I loved
this part of the flight, just dolphining under perfect clouds. This day wasn't
just on, it was obviously epic. This was what I had come for!

After making sure I was well north of the Lubbock Airport airspace (note: I
wasted a lot of time going too far north here, I could have flown much closer
to the airport according to local pilots, the class C airspace only extends
five nautical miles out!), I got very very low near Arken. The smoke had
returned, and the whole sky fell apart as the high-level smoke drifted in.
Depressed, I glided toward a warm-looking brown field, arriving very low. Then
God smiled. The dustie wasn't much, a pale shadow of the big rigs that cruise
the Texas plains in search of loose mobile homes, but it was all I had. At 100
feet above the deck I squared off with it, already in the full spastic
starfish position in preparation for the battle about to happen.  As I hit it,
my wing almost stalled then tried to frontal, but there was a thin core of
violent lift, so I leaned and pulled hard and instantly gained about 200 feet,
only to lose 180 falling out the other side and then chasing it down for
another round. As the dustie and I dueled across the field, a set of power
lines loomed at the downwind edge. Because the winds on the ground were about
30, it was important to either gain some altitude before reaching the lines or
abandon the effort in time to leave room for a clean backwards landing. My
wing and I sparred with the dust devil, taking some hits and getting some
clean half-circles in the violent lift, a delicate dance between stalling and
keeping wing pressure until suddenly it was clear I wouldn't be landing in
that field. At 1000 feet above the ground the climb cleaned up enough to
actually get full circles in, so I was happy until it went to pieces at about
1100 feet agl. This sort of nonsense went on the for the next hour, as I
bounced between telephone-pole height and 3,000 agl repeatedly, slowly
covering a good 30 miles of real estate barely high enough to see the towns
around to know where I was. I was dressed in a full insulated ski suit for
high-altitude flying; this low to the ground, the temperatures were well over
100, and I soon soaked my suit with sweat. I didn't think a record flight was
possible, but I was determined to at least go down fighting. At one point a
field worker yelled something up in Spanish about landing, but no gracias,
another small weak core saved me. I'd radio Scott at the top of the climbs to
let him know I was still in the game, each time telling him I thought this
would be the last climb of the day

Finally, at about mile 120, I managed to find a decent thermal and climb out
to about 5000 agl, where I turned my radio back on and got in touch with
Scott. Near Sterley Scott got a good visual on me again, and warned me that
with my present drift I would be heading into Paloduro Canyon, which is known
as the Grand Canyon of Texas. With the wind on the ground blowing at near 50K,
it was terrifying to think of being in a canyon situation. Finally, I
committed to the glide over the canyon, which was absolutely stellar. I
crabbed a bit sideways to the wind just to get as close to the road running to
Brice as I could, continually relaying my position to Scott, who kept a visual
on me until I was very low on the far side of the canyon. It was comforting to
know someone would find my wreckage if I had a poor landing in the high wind.
I stretched my final as long as I could, skimming down the gently sloping
terrain with the wind. Finally, almost to the Prairie Dog Town Fork River, I
hooked a right turn and landed, with Scott yelling over the radio that he
thought I'd broken the official record. I took plenty of landing pictures, then
packed my gear.

Scott arrived within minutes, having had to do battle with several dead-end
dirt roads. Fortunately, he had seen me low enough to have a good visual on
me, and I had radioed my GPS coordinates when I was less than 30M agl. Our
driver, Brandon and a friend also saw my landing spot. We celebrated with cold
beer and more pictures before beginning the long drive back to Hobbs. I'd gone
179 miles, which beat the old record by about six miles.

Other pilots have flown farther unofficially, for which they deserve full
recognition; my flight is really only meaningful for the memories I have from
it, but I'm happy to have flown farther than I ever have, and happier still to
have done it safely with a great team. Luck, patience and commitment overcame
lousy conditions in the end, but it was very close. That knowledge makes the
memory sweeter. Any reasonably competent pilot could have done what we did, we
just tried.

Thanks to John Baber for his couch, Kurt Graham and Brian Nelson with Cross
Roads for the clean tows and positive attitudes, Brandon for the driving and
Korn for making the epic retrieves bearable.