Higher than a kite
FedEx pilot tries to set record for straight-line soaring
April 17, 2004
Gordon Boettger got two hours of sleep, at most, Wednesday night. There was too much to think about. At dawn, a plane with a 400-foot towrope pulled him in his engineless fiberglass glider 4,000 feet above the Earth’s surface and released him.
Ascending to 27,000 feet, he embarked on his journey to break the world record for soaring straight-line distance. Nearly 11 hours and 700 miles later, he landed at the Steamboat Springs Airport — more than 500 miles shy of the record but with a sense of accomplishment, nonetheless.
Boettger, 36 and a Federal Express pilot, took off from from his hometown of Minden, Nev., 10 miles east of Lake Tahoe, and glided 698 miles in 11 hours, 26 minutes before landing at 6:51 p.m. Thursday.
“Too few people realize what an amazing accomplishment this is,” said former glider pilot and 25-year FedEx pilot Ray Chase, who rushed to the airport when he heard about the “remarkable feat” of a fellow parcel deliverer. “This is very, very special. Unless you’re trying to break a record, people fly these things locally.”
Boettger landed in Steamboat largely by chance. From years of
studying the sport of soaring, particularly the work of German meteorologist Joachim Kuettner, Boettger thought that with the right atmospheric conditions, he could make it all the way to Kansas and break the record.
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Thursday’s weather, however, was less than ideal, Boettger said. Also, soaring is allowed only from dawn to dusk, because most gliders lack lights and can be safety hazards for other vessels.
“You’re fighting the clock, so basically, it’s a race against time,” he said.
Boettger landed in Steamboat four minutes before sunset — or at least the time the Federal Aviation Administration mandates as sunset.
He said he was not disappointed and rather glad he landed in a resort town.
“I’m very satisfied,” Boettger said. “For the given weather conditions, I maximized my distance. I was pleased because I knew I couldn’t go farther, so I think my decision-making was good. After the flight, you always ask yourself, ‘Hey, could I have done any better?’ And I don’t think I could have done any better.”
Up in the stratosphere, Boettger wears an expedition mountain climbing suit — given to him by a man who climbed K2 in Pakistan, the world’s second highest mountain — to resist temperatures of about 40 below zero outside the unpressurized cockpit of his tiny glider.
Boettger breathes from two oxygen tanks lying in the glider’s cavity behind him, while continually assessing the atmospheric conditions, which can make the flight significantly longer or shorter.
The FAA has strict regulations for soaring; meeting them requires lots of planning and waiting for approvals. Thursday’s flight took three years to plan and to get all the necessary approvals, Boettger said.
Not only must he be in radio contact with ground control to be aware of air traffic, but he also must keep in touch with a meteorologist. Thursday, meteorologist and friend Doug Armstrong read satellite imagery from the ground, telling Boettger where the smoothest flight pattern was, where the dangerous moisture pockets were and where the jet stream was moving.
Using the jet stream — at about 30,000 feet — is key to a sustained glide, Boettger said. Getting to that altitude without an engine is where his years of fascination and study come into play.
“There’s so much energy out in the atmosphere that most pilots don’t even know about,” Boettger said. “It’s amazing. You can use that energy and fly without an engine.”
When describing the sport or soaring, words such as flying, gliding and even sailing are used interchangeably. But Boettger compares soaring to surfing. Soaring involves catching waves — mountain waves, he said.
Mountain waves are high winds that come over mountains and cause ripples of air pressure, Boettger said. When catching these waves, a glider can soar upward. Sometimes the waves are so powerful, they can cause a glider to remain stationary on a horizontal plane while zooming upward on a vertical plane.
“I’ve looked at my dials before and seen I’m going 1 mile per hour,” Boettger said. “I’ve even gone backward, but I’ve also gone up 3,000 feet in one minute.”
Like the ocean waves around Hawaii, the mountain waves around Minden are big and powerful and make the town a popular place for soaring. There is a school there that teaches soaring.
The jet stream blows from the Pacific Ocean across California into the Sierra Mountains, creating a large mountain wave — the first of many for Boettger to catch on his journey.
To make it to Steamboat, Boettger rode the initial Sierra wave up and back down and back up again across the Great Basin, Utah and the Rockies.
“It’s like riding a sawtooth,” Boettger said. “You climb up and down.”
He knew he needed almost perfect waves to break the world record, and only a few days a year offer conditions suitable enough to try. The route east from Minden, over Steamboat, is the only way to do it in the United States, he said. The current record holder used waves from the Andes Mountains in South America.
For Thursday’s effort, Boettger’s fiancee, Melissa Leyking, got up at dawn and got into her Jeep Grand Cherokee. Her only directions: drive east.
Every once in a while, she got a cell phone call from Boettger, thousands of feet above her. The last call informed her to drive to Steamboat Springs.
“It’s nerve-racking, but I’m excited for him,” she said. “This is his dream.”
Boettger flew a glider for the first time when he was 13, after learning from his father. He flew jets with the Navy for eight years and is in his eighth year with FedEx.
“Flying airliners just doesn’t do it for me,” Boettger said. “It’s an office in the sky. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great job. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But soaring is just exhilarating.”
Pilot and former Olympic skier Moose Barrows was at the Steamboat Springs Airport on Friday, returning from a flight of his own and checking out Boettger’s glider.
“I’ve done this before,” he said. “But I tend to like a propeller.”
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