For the longest time, I told my students that the highest glider flight was “29,000 and change.” That was what I had read somewhere in the past. Glider pilots made most of the flights in the mountainous regions with a tow up to about 10,000 where they “caught a wave” going uphill to Flight Levels.
Well, curiosity being what it is, I woke this morning and thought about what the new record might be. Surely, there had been a new record achieved by now, I thought. Boy, I was very surprised by what I discovered!
On February 17, 1986, a Riverside hardware store owner, Robert Harris, rode the lee waves on the southern edge of the Sierra Nevada over California City, CA to a record altitude of 49,009 feet. He was an underdog. In fact, he probably was the poster child of all underdogs.
The previous record set by Paul Bikle in the same geographical area on February 25, 1961, was to a height of 46,267 feet. No one since had the ability to best it. Until Harris came along.
In 1978, Harris recently divorced and evidently, with time on his hands, drove by a place offering glider rides. He takes a flight. He must have enjoyed it because he went out and bought a glider. Then he discovers information about Bikle’s flight and the fact that no one has been able to beat that record.
He starts studying – more meteorology and different sailplanes. In 1962, Bikle set his record flying a Schweizer 1-23E. To compete, Harris would have to buy something with a little more performance. He then upgraded to a German-built Grob 102 Standard Astir III. For more than five years, Harris pursued the record with this aircraft. He diligently continued studying the weather, kept the glider ready, and remained poised to fly at a moment’s notice.
Harris tackled his flight without fanfare and less preparation. He flew without a pressure suit and his oxygen system would later fail at altitude, causing him to switch to his emergency system to make the descent down to safety. Many in the sailplane world, along with aviation physiologists, could not believe Harris flew without a pressure suit.
But he did – mainly because he was working on a shoestring budget. In the process, because he worked on his own he was able to accomplish what other teams with great corporate sponsors, could not.
After Bikle set the original record in 1961, it took 25 years for someone to come along and break it. Harris’ record of 49,009 feet would also stand for more than another 20 years until Steve Fossett and copilot Einar Enevoldson set a new Absolute Altitude Record for gliders at 50,720 feet. The two participated in the Perlan Project.
Today, the Perlan Project remains an ongoing viable endeavor to shatter previous sailplane records. The not-for-profit science research organization is dedicated to aeronautical and atmospheric exploration using sailplanes specifically designed for extremely high altitude flight. They are currently planning to fly a new, pressurized craft, in which they hope to touch the edge of space in the realm of 90,000 feet.
For more fascinating information about the Perlan Project, see their website at http://www.perlanproject.org.
©2015 J. Clark
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