TWO MILES HIGH, under dark storm clouds, the hang-glider pilot raced northward. Navigating the cold, rough currents above the high peaks between California and Nevada, he had soared 70 miles in two hours. The landing zone lay just ahead on the desert floor, beyond a curtain of rain that hung beneath a lone cloud.
"Pilot No. 110 to goal," he radioed, flying into the rain. "I'm approaching at 10,000 feet. Be there in five minutes."
Static shocks, increasing in volume, sparked over his earphone. He jerked the phone from his helmet, but moments later stronger jolts arced from his control bar through his gloves, up his arm and then out through one of the straps suspending his harness from the keel. He let go, breaking the circuit, and dangled free from the keel. He had flown into a field of static-charged air, a precursor to lightning.
The glider started to stall. The pilot grabbed a downtube, and another jolt knocked him back. Bracing his boots on the control bar and steering with his feet, he managed to hold the ship in a spiral dive for a full 15 minutes. Stung each time the turbulence flung him against aluminum, he wondered how deep the field extended below him. A hundred feet off the ground, a shock made him fear that if he was hooked in when he landed, he might ground out and be electrocuted. Quickly, he unclipped his harness from the keel. Coming in at 30 knots, he jumped at five feet and hit the ground rolling.
He stood up and brushed himself off, relieved, but angry that he'd come so close and yet failed to complete his flight on the fifth day of the national championships--not that No. 110, Tony Barton of Tucson, was a contender. Barton inspected his ship: a heap of bent aluminum. It was his first week in the infamous Owens Valley.
THE OWENS VALLEY, one of the deepest in America, divides the 14,000-foot peaks of the White Mountains from the Sierra Nevada. It is a long, narrow solar furnace that heats air into rising bubbles and columns--thermals. Birdmen from all over the world come here for the farthest flights of their lives. They call this valley the world's greatest thermal corridor. In the early days they called it the Valley of Death.
In the late afternoon you can launch into an invisible gyre spiraling out of a canyon and circle upward two miles in 10 minutes to the great concave base of a cumulus cloud. The cloud itself blossoms as moisture, pumped up by the gyre, cools and condenses. You could fly higher, at the risk of getting lost in the icy grayness, sucked up to the core, electrocuted, frozen and dropped miles away, a hailstone.
Sky sailors, as some serious hang-glider pilots like to be called, routinely evade "cloud suck." Today, however, the chief danger is from random gust fronts--walls of wind that can burst from a cloud at 50 knots, shredding any glider in their path, leaving a stunned pilot drifting to the earth with a parachute.
The fliers stand watching the sky. Rainstorms obscure both ends of the valley, and between the storms cruise two dozen flat-bottomed thunderheads. Below, several dust devils, translucent tornadoes, cut across the desert floor.
"You don't want a dead man in this contest!" Josef (Hang Czech Joe) Bostik yells at a meet director.
"I don't want anyone to dive out into the zone and get killed by gust fronts," explains Mark Axen, one of the last bearded longhairs on the sky-sailing scene. "But we came all the way up here, and if the storm system shuts down, making conditions safe, I want to have a contest day."
"Call a task or call it a day!" someone yells, impatient to soar the daily task, a course over which he'll be timed.
Tempers flare. For five hours, 80 pilots have been waiting along a switchback of an old mining road, 8,000 feet up a barren ridge in the White Mountains. Most everyone wants to go down immediately. A handful of the super-competitive want to wait out the storm. Axen decides to keep them grounded until the day draws too close to dark to call a task.
"The Indian spirits are against us today," says the Czech, a 23-year-old defector with an early-Beatles haircut and a mustache.
Ten days before the nationals, Bostik had broken the world distance record. Launching from the southern end of the valley, he'd soared along the silver cirques of the Sierra, gliding from gyre to gyre. At 50 miles, he had crossed the valley and sailed north again along the spine of the Whites, then crossed another valley and picked up a range in Nevada. After nine hours he touched down 228 miles from takeoff--eight miles farther than the old record set in 1983 by Larry Tudor.
On the same day that Hang Czech Joe broke the distance record, Tudor, 32, an itinerant flyer whose first passion had been tournament chess, set a distance-to-a-goal record of 220 miles, a feat that only a sky sailor could truly appreciate--choosing a landing zone at that distance when only 10 pilots had ever flown more than 200 miles in the first place.