Bo's Longest Flight Story
Knowing that great cross-country days often times come in pairs, I was interested to see what the day would hold for us, the competitors of the Snowbird 2000 X-C Competition. On the previous day, the Utah State paragliding distance record had been broken by Chad Bastian, who flew 91 miles. Todd Bibler had flown a very respectable 87 miles as well. This day however didn't seem encouraging as I called the winds aloft forecast. They were reporting 17 knots from the SW at 12,000 feet, too strong for us to attempt the 11,000 foot launch at the top of the Tram at Snowbird. I called Ken, the meet director, expecting instructions to head to our alternative launch sight at Inspiration Peak in Provo. Ken was already at the Bird and surprisingly winds were light. I met some other buddies at the base of the canyon and we booked up to the Bird with one thing on our minds - the possibility of going big and going far.
On launch winds were calm, but I think we all felt a sense of urgency to get in the air before the winds increased. A southwest wind is probably the least favorite direction to launch Hidden Peak at Snowbird. Just southwest of launch, Twin Peak towers Hidden Peak and can hide the wind and create lee-side conditions. I was concerned that it was hiding the wind that we may encounter. I spoke with Bill to see what a top-level pilot thought of the day. "If we can get up and out - it could be a really good day and we could go far." This was all the encouragement I needed to suit up and get ready. In poll position, Bill found the first thermal and climbed smoothly into the sky to 15,000 feet. He made it look enticing as the rest of us waited for the next cycle. It took quite a while, but 15 minutes later a cycle was reported coming up and looking good.
I felt a nice breeze and pulled my wing overhead in a reverse launch. Immediately I was plucked into the sky going backward with violent wing oscillation. I quickly rotated my harness around searching for pressure in the wing and hoping to fly straight away from the hill. I managed more than a handful of yaws and pitches for what seemed like an eternity. The dust devil that I had mistakenly launched in finally released its deathly grip on me and I flew straight away from the terrain. The thought crossed my mind that I wanted out of the air but I wasn't sure that the bottom of Little Cottonwood Canyon would be the friendliest LZ. I ran into a strong windblown thermal and decided to climb as best I could for more clearance and safer LZ options.
To my surprise Todd and Dale were launching. Didn't they see the narrow escape I had just pulled off? Regardless, they joined me over the spine in my gnarly windblown thermal. Together we climbed at an angle into the sky. It was a turbulent climb and I held on for dear life. Dale and Todd moved upwind of the thermal and climbed significantly stronger. I was still puckered from surviving launch and wasn't ready for more turbulence. I stayed in my steady climb but drifted further downwind out into the middle of the canyon. I realized my mistake as I fought my way upwind towards my winged friends. At 13,000 feet I knew I had no business thinking that I could make it safely out of the Wasatch Front, I would need at least 14,000 feet. Todd and Dale were about 500 to a thousand feet above me and heading east towards Park City. I was coming up short on my approach to the highest peaks in the area. I decided to also head east in hopes of landing safely at Solitude, the next ski resort in the area.
I was low and sinking like a rock as I crossed over into the next canyon. That's when I ran into one of the strongest thermals I have ever come across. It was as if all of Big Cottonwood Canyon was lifting at the top of the canyon. I decided to put my Gin Bonanza on its wingtip to wing load my glider and to make sure I didn't lose this last chance to safely escape the Wasatch Front. As I climbed strongly, I saw Todd ahead of me climbing in a nice thermal. It has become a very typical sight in my flying to have Todd ahead and above. Dale on the other hand was low over the terrain searching for lift. I joined in Todd's thermal climbing slowly and drifting nicely over Park City. Dale joined us as we past Park City and we positioned ourselves under a cloud street heading to the northeast. The thermal steadily increased to 1,600 feet/min. up. I decided to go on glide at 17.999.9.
My radio was dead and I lost a visual on Todd and his stealth technology purple Vertex. I followed the cloud street on glide as I crossed a large canyon north of Coalville. At 14,500 I caught another thermal over a peak with a radio tower back to 17,500 feet. Decision time. The cloud street forked. One street headed northeast into no man's land, while the other followed I-80 to the east. I checked my drift with my GPS and decided that the winds were predominantly from the southwest. I decided to head towards no man's land following the wind. It seemed to be working as I descended and ascended back to 16,500 feet. To my disappointment my cloud street dissipated to only an occasional cumulous. By this time I was alone and 5-8 miles north of the ever-building cloud street that had formed over I-80. The good news was that I was travelling 46 miles and hour over the ground and had a good chance at crossing the state line of Wyoming if I could just stay in the air. Seeing a distant town directly northeast in my flight path also inspired me to go the distance and set myself up for an easier retrieve.
I had willingly put myself in no man's land, knowing I may have had to walk 8 miles out of the desert. As I got lower, my senses increased and I relaxed. I heard a faint beep on the vario and knew this was a chance to climb out or at least drift across the earth to a more hospitable LZ. I melted into the harness, cleared my mind and turned with ever adjusting circles in the wind-blown blue sky thermal. I had become bird-like. Nothing was in my mind but riding the wind. It was truly a great moment in my flying career.
Approaching the northern suburb of Evanston, Wyoming low, I figured I had one last chance. The foothills beyond town looked promising. I did find some lift and realized that I was dealing with strong surface winds. As I thermalled, my GPS was reading a 46 mile and hour downwind leg and a 2 mile an hour upwind leg. The thermal I was in was leaning at a strong angle and I didn't have a good climb rate. With only 400 feet of altitude I searched for a good LZ. A gravel road sauntered through the barren hills of Wyoming and to my pleasant surprise a truck had stopped and was waiting for me to land. I felt one more thermal 100 feet off the deck. I turned in it but fell out the back and descended rapidly. My approach reminded me of landing on the South Side at the Point of the Mountain as I crabbed to the right and backwards touching down in the middle of the road 30 feet in front of the truck. I spun my harness around to control the wing as the wind picked me up again. With a strong pull on the brakes the wing came quickly down and I bundled up the glider.
I approached Paul, the driver of the truck and asked if I could catch a ride into town. He agreed and as I got in the truck he explained that he hadnŐt seen anything. He had only stopped in the road because that was the best phone reception for miles. He had been on the phone and when he looked up, there I was - in a flight suit, helmet, electronics hanging from me and attached to my paraglider. I checked my GPS on the way back to town and realized I had flown my personal best of 72 miles. I met up with Kelly Rhodes, who had volunteered to chase the competitors. We grabbed lunch and headed out in search of Dale. What a truly amazing day. I can't wait till next year.