Aviation: It's a Bird's Life

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1995

Aviation: It's a Bird's Life

Hang-gliding legend Larry Tudor's 400-mile dreams
By Joe Bower

It must be nerve-racking being a bird. The unexpected downdrafts. The bullying jet aircraft. Those disgusting contrails. "I'm as comfortable in the air as on the ground," says Larry Tudor, arguably the world's finest hang glider and, by his own admission, something of a Cooper's hawk in men's clothing. "In fact, I get neurotic when I don't fly."

If all goes well this month, Tudor, a slight, fidgety Californian who has been pushing the limits of how far hang gliders can go since the sport's early days in the 1970s, will attempt to fly 400 miles nonstop. It's a heretofore unthinkable distance--92 miles farther than the current record, which Tudor set in 1994--that is the equivalent of taking off from Washington, D.C. and touching down in center field at Boston's Fenway Park. The 40-year-old Tudor, however, plans to fly across Wyoming. According to his calculations, it's the only place in the United States where such a feat can be accomplished.

Tudor, who is bearded and quietly math-teacherlike, flies 12 months a year, thanks to a full-time job testing and demonstrating hang gliders for a manufacturer. He also wins regularly on the U.S. and world circuits. He was the second person to fly 100 miles and the first person to fly 200 miles, which he did in 1983, and he is the only person to have flown 300 miles, which he pulled off in 1990.

Early this month, Tudor will begin camping out at a Wyoming hang-gliding hotspot known as Red Desert, located just north of I-80 along the Continental Divide, and he'll make daily launches off the dusty, bronze basin. His hope is that on one of these flights he'll luck into the perfect combination of scorching temperatures, strong westerly winds, and high cloud-bases."Hang gliding for distance isn't like running track, where you train and train and then go to a meet and try to break a record," Tudor explains. "Sometimes it takes years to get just the right weather conditions." Aided by a panel of weather gauges rigged to his base tube, Tudor will circle in his sleek, white delta-wing glider looking for thermals, strong currents of rising warm air. When he finds one, he'll ride it until it dissipates. Taking advantage of his altitude, he'll log a few forward miles, look for another thermal, and begin the process again. If all goes well, Tudor should touch down in grasslands somewhere near Kimball, Nebraska, about ten hours after takeoff. "It's like chess," he says. "You build a strong position, you try to keep safe, and you anticipate where you want to be."

But is 400 miles possible? "Theoretically, yes," says rival Jim Lee, "but realistically, can he get all the right conditions to converge at the right moment? Probably not." Geoff Loyns, another hang glider, won't be betting against Tudor. "He understands the skies too well," he says. "Some reckon he really is part bird."

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