Seven hours in the Owens
by Will Gadd

"Bow down before the one you serve, you're going to get what you deserve...."

-Nine inch nails. 

        What you can do with seven hours? Well, you could see three movies,
fly across the Atlantic in a jet, drive from LA to San Francisco, or fly
138 miles from Horseshoe Meadows, California to Luning, Nevada on a
paraglider. The in-flight movie is engaging, but the turbulence can be
        As of June 24 1997, the official FAI US paraglidng record was still
held by Greg Smith: 65 miles, set on an Edel Space in the early nineties in
the Owens Valley. The unofficial record was set by Tom Truax in '94, 124
miles, also in the Owens Valley, on an Edel Rainbow.
        In early May I went to the Owens to see if very long XC flights
were possible/sensible, given the infamous reputation the conditions in the
Owens have earned. On that trip, Othar Laurence, Josh Cohn and I had
several 50 mile flights, but it was obvious we barely tapped the potential
of the place. The early season air seemed reasonable, and after researching
Chelan, Hobbs, Rock Springs and several other sites, I was convinced that
the Owens was the place to try for a US distance record. Unfortunately,
most of the gliding world didn't agree with me. Robbie Whittal wished me
luck, but said that he'd flown his hang glider there enough to feel that it
wasn't all that paraglider friendly. Kari Castle was also supportive, but
said that she didn't even enjoy flying her hang there in full conditions
after getting tumbled over the Whites several years ago. Reassured (not!),
I planned a second trip for late June/early July.
        Light winds on launch are essential for paraglidng; several sites
in the US offer record XC potential, but they face west and are almost
always blown out on the really good days, at least for PGs. The Owens is
unique in that the launch is on the eastern side of the Sierras, which
generally means light east wind in the morning, but after the first 60
miles the usual flight path is to cross the broad Owens Valley and fly the
west-facing White Mountains as the prevailing westerlies overpower the
light easterlies in the early afternoon. After the White's, pilots head out
north into the Nevada hills. Hang gliders have been flying this route for
almost 20 years, and modern paragliders have superior performance to the
old hang gliders--I was convinced that 100+ mile flights were very
achievable, but so was a fast reserve ride if conditions were simply too
         In late June I returned to the Owens with my wife, Susy Gadd--I'd
planned to also meet Penguin there, but he had a hard landing and was
incarcerated in his hospital Intensive Care Unit or I'm sure he would have
been there. Hopefully he'll come next time and meet his goal of a 100K
Lilenthal award.
        On our May trip to the Owens, Walt's Point, the classic hang
gliding launch, was still snowed in, so we mainly flew on the West side of
the valley at Flynns and Pauite. On June 24, after a 16-hour push from
Colorado, I was finally standing in front of a sign that read, "Walt's
Point Hang Gliding/Paragliding Launch." I don't know who decided that
Walt's was a reasonable paraglider launch, but it wasn't anyone who had
ever flown a paraglider. The options are to inflate in the rotor in the
parking lot then run off the edge, or stand on a 45-degree road-debris
slope and inflate with your lines hopefully not snagged on any large
boulders, bushes or some other piece of thorny desert stuff. That afternoon
the wind was blowing in nicely, but I was tired from driving so we all went
for a walk instead of flying. 
        The next morning the winds were predicted as light from the south
all the way through 18,000 feet, so we all made the drive again. Aimee
Ryan, the launch monitor, didn't look too impressed when I said I was there
to fly my paraglider, but was helpful as I filled out all the paperwork and
paid my $15 to chuck off a launch that was definitely worse than most of
the surrounding hillsides from a paragliding perspective. However, I'd come
to possibly set the US distance record, so I didn't want any problems with
the legality of my launch. I quietly asked Aimee to be my official launch
observer as I went through all of the paperwork for FAI record attempts.
The hangs on launch were interested if skeptical as I laid out my wing and
checked the lines, but the hang team of Scott and Dawn offered advice and
to share their frequency. I was more than a little spooked to finally fly
the Owens in full conditions, so I was anxious to simply get off the hill
and find out how many sharks were swimming in the thermals.
         The cycles were perfect, and the first two hangs off the hill
climbed out smoothly. There was no good reason to delay any longer; Walt's
faces east, so you can never be sure, no matter what the predictions, that
the prevailing westerlies won't come roaring down the east side of the
Sierras. I've been trashed in the lee of the Rockies, my home mountain
range, enough times to know getting high early is key.
        Finally I told Aimee that I was ready to launch, and she put her
two small children in her truck with the comment that she didn't want them
to watch if I augured in while launching....
        Fortunately, everything worked out well thanks to the help of
several hang pilots holding my wing up to catch air, and I enjoyed a rowdy
but solid climb out in a light south wind. Two of the hangs were soon below
me, with two more starting glides north along the Sierras toward Bishop.
Figuring that I'd use them as thermal markers until they were out of sight,
I hit about 12,000 and went on glide over the first bowl north of launch.
Unfortunately, the hangs soon sunk out, and I wouldn't see another glider
in the air for about 50 miles. I flew straight to the first major spine
north and had a dreamy climb to about 16,000 feet, looking down the length
of the Sierras past 14,400-foot mount Whitney.
         The air was extremely powerful, and, at times, disorganized--I
didn't pee, take a photo or let go of the brakes for the first 50 miles.
Flying in powerful air isn't so much about recovering from big whacks, but
simply preventing them in the first place, a dance of weight shift, brake,
pump before the wing deflates, repeat. I fly with no cross straps and a
very loose harness to help keep my wing pressurized; as soon as a side
starts to go light, it's key to weight-shift onto it, something even loose
straps may prevent. Several times I hit thermals so violent that the only
viable option was to thermal or be thermalled.
        The flying soon became a familiar large valley pattern: Climb out
over a spine/ridge, glide across a drainage, climb, repeat. I was extremely
careful to always leave at least 500 feet of good clearance between me and
the outrageous rocky spines lurking below, as I had no desire to get
trashed low over extremely inhospitable terrain. With the increasing south
wind, it would also have been easy to make a small error and find myself
getting rotored deep into a canyon with more than the Sector's 9:1 glide
out to a safe LZ. The terrain on the Eastern side of the Sierras is
absolutely the most convoluted, rocky, radical terrain I've ever thermalled
over. While thrilling, I found it somewhat humbling. My harness was laden
with a good first aid kit, food for several days, signal flares and other
safety equipment, but I had no desire to use any of it.
        The best climb in the first two hours took place just north of the
Whitney Portal, a road that ascends most of mount Whitney. I'd done a long
glide, skipped a spine and gotten down to about 9,000, not that high for
the Owens. In front of me was a barren, rocky ridge that might as well have
been stamped with "THERMAL HERE"  in 40-foot day-glo letters on it, so I
headed in. About 500 lateral feet from the spine, I heard a sound like a
jet engine winding up, then my wing surged ahead to about 45 degrees before
yanking me forward like I was on the end of a rubber band. The sound of the
rushing air almost completely  muted my vario, but it was obvious from the
intense g-force that I was going up hella fast. My left wing started to not
so much collapse as just thrash randomly, so I leaned hard right and went
up on the fastest elevator ride of my career--I couldn't really picture
falling off the far side of this train. The Owens does indeed have strong
        My Ball vario/barograph, integrated with a GPS and air speed
indicator, was soon indicating glides of 25:1 as I flew with the wind, but
my ground speed started to exceed 50. My Edel Sector goes at about 25 at
trim, which meant that suddenly the predicted light south winds were really
picking up.  My final Sierras climb took me very rapidly from about 11,000
to 17,000, but I had to leave the climb to avoid going above the FAA
ceiling of 18,000 feet. I'd decided not to fly with oxygen as I'm generally
well-acclimated to 14,000+ feet, but, probably due to the stress of flying
in the Owens, my mental juice was severly limited. My hypoxic mind started
playing full-color movies of what a 35 mph wind would do to my wing in a
canyon rotor, so I flew out to join the  dust devils; in the middle of the
valley high winds wouldn't be a problem, as I could land easily even if I
were getting blown backwards. It wouldn't be fun, but it would be
        As I descended toward the small cinder cones in the valley, I was
thinking it would be difficult to stay up, but that my first flight in the
Owens showed that flying was reasonable for a paraglider pilot experienced
in flying very strong thermal conditions. Looking back up the valley I
could see two hangs already on the dirt, but my radio had, as usual, died,
so I didn't know where Scott or my wife were. 
        Strangely, the south wind dropped to about 15 in the middle of the
valley, so I hooked a light 200 up and went circling down the valley at
about 6,000 feet, maybe 2,000 agl. After 10 miles of drifting and slow
climbing, I was back up to about 10,000 in the middle of the valley. From
my flights earlier in the year, I knew the fan in front of Black Mountain,
the first mountain in the west-facing White Mountain chain, worked well, so
I glided over to it, arriving at maybe 500 agl. Sure enough, right over the
remnants of an old quarry, I found a nasty little dustie swirling the usual
collection of loose desert debris, which took me back to 10,000. However,
the lift soon went to pieces, and I found myself battling an aberrant east
wind with no north drift-exactly the opposite of what I expected or wanted
to cover serious distance.
        As I bounced between 6,000 and 8,000 over the massive satellite
antennas of "Big Ears," Scott finally showed up on his hang. Knowing that
Dawn and my wife were chasing and due to the mellower air, I dug my spare
batteries out of the back of my harness (not something I'd recommend,
especially in turbulent air)u and did a mid-air juggling act with my radio
and a fresh set of four Alkaline batteries. I took my biggest collapse of
the trip when I took a hard surge with both brakes in one hand; I cuaght
it, but lost a bit of the wing, oscillated, lost more of the wing, repeat,
spin, OK, guess I'll put the batteries and shell under my butt, get a brake
in each hand.... The whole experience was pretty silly,  and it definitely
lightened my mood up.
        Soon I could talk with Scott and Dawn, but Scott slowly sunk out by
the antennas and once again I was on my own. I'd really planned to
basically chase hangs along the range, but they seemed strongly attracted
to the dirt, which bummed me out. It's lonely up there.
        Dawn relayed to my wife that all was well; for some reason she
could reach Susy on her base radio while I couldn't. I spent almost two
hours groveling along between Black Mountain and Bishop, which I thought
ruined my schedule for any serious distance efforts. However, the air was
choppy but reasonable, which allowed me to take a pee, drink some Surge,
eat some Circus Peanuts and generally get my head back together at a lower
altitude. I find my psychological state is much more important than the
conditions; if I'm psyched, I feel like I can climb out in a gopher puff
and that rowdy air is fun; if I'm cold, tired and hypoxic, terror and
despair sets in and I'm soon on the ground. I'd already been in the air
almost four hours, so the food and liquids I'd planned with in-flight
dining in mind were essential to keep my psyche up.
        Finally, just north of Bishop, the air turned back on and I was
soon looking over the tops of the White Mountains and out into the desert
of Nevada from about 16,500 feet. The air was very powerful with climbs
consistently over 1000 fpm, and the south wind was starting to turn back on
giving me ground speeds up into the 35-40 range, about where I wanted them
for safe but fast flying. I opted to stay above the spines in front of the
Whites rather than committing to the very top of the White Mountains, where
the best cloud development was. I was concerned that the wind might
increase, and the climbs out front were working just fine, so I opted for
perhaps a slower but definitely safer route. I'd seen no hangs since Black,
never shared a thermal with even a bird, so I was starting to feel slightly
alone. Paranoia almost set in; maybe the hangs had gone and landed for a
reason, maybe massive gust fronts were ripping the satellite antennas from
the ground like leaves...
         But conditions were ON, and nothing overcomes doubt like
consistent strong thermal climbs. I finally committed to the Whites just
short of Boundary Peak, and had to stuff the speed bar and pull one of my
three A-lines in to stay below 18,000 feet. Strangely, the altitude wasn't
hammering me as badly--I had good glider control, and the temp at 17,500
was definitely warmer than it had been earlier. Looking at the map on my
flight deck, I intelligently and with careful thought made the largest
error of my flight. Perhaps I was a bit short on oxygen after all...
        Because my previous flights over the Whites had all been at low
altitude, I failed to see the proper turnoff to head north after Montgomery
Pass. By the time I'd figured out exactly where the road was, I was too far
east and low behind Boundary Peak. The air was extremely turbulent but with
no lift--classic lee-side rotor. Meanwhile, a beautiful cloud street had
formed from the top of Boundary Peak straight North toward Mina and Luning,
where I wanted to be. However, I was now picking out LZs instead of boating
effortlessly along beneath it. Still, I'd flown 100 miles, not bad for my
first flight off Walt's. For the next hour I chased dusties, birds and sun
behind Boundary Peak, while a light north wind kept me from gliding very
far north, the direction I really wanted to keep racking miles up in.
Eventually I worked my way over the road to Tonopah, but with less than
2000 feet of altitude to play with, and I was mid-way between the only two
roads north. However, to the north of me was a small peak in the middle of
nowhere with a little puffy cloud cycling over it. In one of those, "what
the hell, it has to work decisions," I glided into the peak very, very low;
if I went down I'd be at least 10 miles from a road at 6:00 in the evening.
A glide across the sunny but lee side of the peak produced nothing but more
altitude loss. Desperate and just kicking myself for getting low in what
I'd started thinking of as the Bermuda Triangle, I circled in zero lift and
used every Lookout Mountain light air trick I could think of, but slowly I
sank farther below the peak and deeper into one of the canyons I'd sworn
not to land in. The cloud street less than five miles to my west taunted me
from 19,000 feet, while I dove and roller-coasted down into the canyon's
still evening air. Not only did the cloud street torture me mentally, it
was shading all but a few small patches of slope in my area. I alternately
cursed myself for not only blowing a prime opportunity to break the US
record, but now I was going to have to walk out of a rattlesnake infested
hell canyon even if I could land safely in the monster boulders and thorny
shrubbery. I couldn't imagine being here on a hang glider; landing and
walking out was a barely survivable option on a paraglider. The north wind
put all the sunny slopes in a mild lee, but I've flown lee a lot and knew
it was my only chance to escape the Bermuda triangle.
        Less than 500 AGL, I saw a hawk climbing out above a sun patch in a
small, rocky bowl ringed with yellow granite spikes. Time to climb or stack
the wing. The hawk eyed me with his beady eyes as I joined him at maybe 300
AGL, but the best thermal pilots on the planet are seldom wrong, and soon I
was circling out of hell. At 2000 feet agl the hawk tired of my company and
left as the lift slowed to 300 fpm, but there was no way I was going to
leave my thermal until I had enough altitude to glide out of the triangle.
Amazingly, the thermal kept me climbing straight up to 16,000 feet!
Shivering and laughing, I was soon on glide over the spot I'd marked on my
map as Tom Truax's record. Light but acres-wide areas of lift kept me up
around 12,000 feet, where I let the trim out and glided over Mina toward
Luning. I'd been in the air almost seven hours, and the day was definitely
ending. Only a few miles short of Luning I snapped some aerial photos to
document my landing area, then glided along over the highway. Picking a gap
in traffic next to a nice dirt area, I made a perfect landing in the still
evening air. Actually, I rolled down the road embankment after my useless
legs failed to work. A quick look at my GPS confirmed almost 140 miles, at
least a dozen miles farther than the old record, which sent me into a
demented giggling fit amidst the  broken glass and debris of the ditch.
        "Hey, are you OK?" I was shocked back into reality by a passing
motorist who had seen me land. Captain Jim Williams, a retired military
pilot, was more than willing to sign my FAI witness forms and give me a
lift to the Mina Club, where I left messages for my wife, (she hadn't seen
me since Boundary Peak and her radio wasn't working) and enjoyed the bar's
hospitality.  Thanks very much to Jim Williams for the ride and ensuing
entertainment at the bar.
        The flight was a little more than 138 miles, and if all my
paperwork is in order then I'll have the new  FAI official record for the
US. While that's a plus, my best memories are of chasing a bird out of the
middle of nowhere in the Bermuda triangle and looking down the length of
the Sierras from 16,000 feet. Life is good. 

Reflections on the flight: 

It's probably pretty obvious, but the Owens is a violent place to fly
paragliders (in fact, it's probably violent for anything but sailplanes,
and even those have been destroyed there.). It's strong, windy, and has
extremely complex meteorology. I have more than 600 hours of flying all
over the world, but I didn't fly more than 20 miles on any of the other
eight days I was in the Owens--there was simply too much wind from the west
or other directions. One morning I flew off of Walt's with a strong west
wind aloft, and conditions were among the nastiest I've ever experienced. I
won't do that again.  Tom Truax, who held the old record, hit the ground
hard off of Horshoe a few weeks after my flight, and he's a solid pilot.
The Owens has damn big teeth.

I flew an Edel Sector on my record attempt. I choose to fly a perhaps less
forgiving but very high-speed competition wing primarily because, in strong
conditions, speed is safety. I didn't want to get pinned on a ridge becaue
I was flying a slow wing. However, with the right day, a good intermediate
glider such as a Saber or Cult could easily do the flight I did. The Sector
was excellent for speeding through the regular 1500 fpm sink patches that
could last two or three minutes, and remained stable with a lot of speed

I flew with far more safety gear than I normally do, but I think it's
pretty much mandatory for serious Owens flying. It would be quite possible
to land only 10 miles but a very, very long walk away from help on a nasty
ridge or in the bottom of some Dante-inspired canyon hole. Cell coverage is
sporadic at best along the roads in the area.

The mountain biking, climbing, hiking and general recreation opportunities
in the Owens are awesome, even in the summer heat. I tried to fly in the
Owens for eight days but only had one good day, the first. I soon came to
view the trip as more of a vacation with flying as an addition than a
flying trip.

I can't help but think 200 miles would be very possible on the right day,
especially if the pilot ignored the 18,000 foot FAA ceiling. I made a
couple of tactical errors because I wasn't familiar with the area, errors I
think cost me at least two hours or 40 miles.... I'll be back, but with
oxygen and a better understanding of the area!