South African sets 250+km declared goal paragliding world record

Jaco Wolmarans reports from South Africa on a 265 km declared distance to goal paragliding world record, set at the height of the season in 2000

Two hundred meters above the sweltering heat of the Prieska airfield, Beau Basson is sweating. He’d released off the winch, into what he thought was a thermal, a declared world distance record beckoning. But things aren’t going so well. He is still low, with no end in sight for his miserable climb rate.

An hour later and 25 km further, a determined Beau is still sitting below 1000 m, his distance record attempt starting to be a faint memory. He is now only intent on staying up, not landing anywhere in this inhospitable countryside where a single bad decision could mean a hot 6 hours’ walk to the nearest road.

Beau and fellow Gauteng pilot Jacques Coetzee had opted for Prieska airfield because of a low pressure system with daily overdeveloping clouds parking over Kuruman and Vryburg in December. Prieska was neatly situated on the projected edge of this system. But that – and very little restricted airspace – were one of the few things counting in its favour.

What most certainly counted against Prieska was the fact that the first 65 km in the chosen flying direction, east, was nomansland. Throw in enormous, 4-6m/s sink between thermals, and you’re asking major commitment from any pilot, regardless of how tempting a world record is.

This meant really hard, nailbiting flying early in the day. Both pilots were back at 300 m AGL many times before scratching back up to a safer height again and able to glide on to where a better road infrastructure would allow Beau’s girlfriend Pauli du Plessis and Jacques’ wife Estelle (also their winching crew) to follow.

But when the big time came, they were rewarded with 7-8 m/s climbs, typically flatland rough stuff. Beau had his eyes set on Alex Louw’s 250 km declared distance record, chasing his declared distance of 265 km on his Apco Tigra.

Using an initially slow 54 km/h tailwind, the two pilots managed extensive glides from their base height of 4 900 m ASL towards Jagersfontein town. The wind gradually increased to 68-75 km/h, making for excellent speed over ground.

Still, Beau had two desperately low saves after hugging cloud base for over 50 km, flying on oxygen. Close to Orania he had to make a decision about leaving the road and safety and cutting across nomansland yet again for best glide. Which is normally not a hard choice to make, unless you’re kicking power lines at the time.

“It called for serious commitment,” Beau recalls. “Our recovery had to take a 40 km detour to follow me downwind. Or I could just land there, and call it quits. I had had such good low saves that the flight was already worth the effort. I was tempted to just touch down, but in the end decided to stick it out. I just kept drifting in nothing for a whole 5 km before the thermal eventually released against a small hill and I got up again!”

Beau arrived at Jagersfontein after five and a half hours, and spent a while above town at 2000 m AGL while waiting for his backup and witnesses to arrive. This town was Jacques’ declared goal, but Beau still had to push on past town for the extra few kilometres that would clinch the world record.

Jacques made goal and carried on for an open distance flight of 296 km, while Estelle commandeered one of the Jagersfontein policemen to act as FAI witness.

The feeling? One of accomplishment, is the modest answer. “Every South African pilot dreams of doing good distance. I have too, for many years. I think we can still go further here – I reckon a declared goal of +300 is possible, and open distance of 350 to 400 km.”

Updated January 2011

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