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Wind-Swept : Larry Tudor of Tustin pushes all the limits of hang gliding, like trying to fly 400 miles nonstop

June 14, 1995|JOE BOWER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hang gliders liken Larry Tudor to a bird, and it seems obvious why.

His skinny frame, particularly his scrawny legs, have a passerine quality. He fidgets constantly--shifting from foot to foot, folding his arms, tugging on his shirt--not unlike a sparrow nervously hopping across the sidewalk. His eyes constantly dart about as if watching for a stalking cat. Reserved and unassuming, he is as shy as a dove.

But Tudor's real birdlike similarities appear when he takes wing.

Harnessed in his sleek, white glider, the 40-year-old Tustin resident soars almost effortlessly.

"I'm as comfortable in the air as I am on the ground," he says. "I get neurotic when I don't fly."

Accumulating more flight time during the last 20 years than any other glider pilot, Tudor has learned to soar higher and farther than anything this side of a condor.

He is, in fact, arguably the world's finest hang glider.

He is currently in Wyoming's Red Desert trying to fly a record 400 miles nonstop.

The desert, with its strong and constant wind, is a hang-gliding oasis along the Continental Divide. Launching from a truck-mounted tow rope (because the area lacks takeoff hills), he plans daily attempts at the distance. It is 92 miles farther than his current world-record distance and roughly equal to a trip from San Clemente to San Francisco--as the crow flies.

To date, nobody but Tudor and Spokane, Wash., pilot Larry Strom, his partner on this record bid, has considered, much less tried, to soar so far.

"Theoretically, [flying 400 miles] is attainable, but realistically, it's not," says Jim Lee, a top pilot from Taos, N.M. "It would take the absolute ideal of everything happening at once: the right guy at the right time at the right place with the right equipment and the right weather."

But Tudor, a test pilot, sales rep and sponsored flier for Orange-based Wills Wing glider company, thinks it's doable. His confidence stems from the success he had last year. Taking off from the same dusty, desert spot, he flew 308 miles before coming down in a Colorado field. He reached that distance despite having his morning launch delayed three hours and his flight grounded by head winds with 45 minutes left of daylight. The trip lasted eight hours.

Since 1981, Tudor has been pushing the limits on how far these aluminum-framed, delta-wing crafts can travel. He was the second hang glider to fly 100 miles, the first to soar 200 miles and the only one to top 300 miles, which he first managed in 1990.

That epic 303-mile flight, a distance that easily doubles most pilots' best efforts, was hailed as the hang-gliding equivalent to Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile.

"Tudor is so far ahead of the nearest competitor," says Hang Gliding magazine editor Gil Dodgen, noting that only three other pilots have flown beyond 270 miles. "Everyone else has basically given up."

His flying talents have been called instinctive by peers, such as Redwood City distance pilot Geoff Lyons, who says, "Some reckon he's part bird." Writers who have dubbed him "the wizard of cross-country hang gliding" seem to think a magical knack is responsible. But Tudor says it's merely the result of child's play.

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While growing up in Denver, Tudor was a juvenile chess champ. He achieved an expert ranking before tiring of tournament play and discovering hang gliding in 1973.

"The exhilaration of flying through the air exactly like a bird became everything to me," he says. "Flying gave me so much freedom. It allowed me to see the world from my favorite perspective, which is looking down at it."

Within months, he quit his job and moved to Utah, another prime gliding locale, where he slept in his car to cut costs, glided every day and eventually realized chess strategies translated to his new pursuit.

"Hang gliding is like chess," Tudor says. "It's positional play. You build the strongest position. You control the space. You keep safe. You foresee where you want to be."

Since then, he has become the sport's grand master.

He has starred not only at distance flying, but also at hang gliding's two other events: aerobatics and racing.

Early on, he loved the aerobatics competitions, in which he would zip off flashy routines featuring dives, twists and flips. Later he gravitated to racing, going on to win 11 races on the U.S. and foreign circuits, finish second in 11 others and place third in eight more. If he's not among the top three finalists in a race, he's usually not far behind. Last month, he finished fifth in the Canadian nationals.

Over the years he has amassed enough top performances to earn an unprecedented six selections to the U.S. team in hang gliding's premier event, the biannual World Meet, including the one he plans to attend next month in Spain.

"Most pilots are good at one event," says Mike Mocho, who organizes a competition in New Mexico. "But Larry is unique. He has excelled in all three."

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