Pilot flies 33-year-old sailplane to explore winds along Sierra
April 7, 2005
With two record-breaking flights under his belt this spring, Gordon Boettger is a pioneer exploring the topography of the air above the Sierra Nevada.
The 37-year-old Minden resident is probing the Sierra lee wave in a 33-year-old sailplane and in the process has, in the space of two weeks, set and broken the distance record for North America.
On April 3 he flew 1,212 miles in 13 hours and 17 minutes. The only limitation he faced was the setting sun.
The same storm that generated 60 mph winds in the Carson Valley also drove the remarkable phenomena that not only allowed Boettger to fly his sailplane a record distance, but gave him a clear path to steer his ship.
The topography of the air during a lee wave storm is very similar to that of the Sierra. The wave occurs where there is a tall, straight mountain face overlooking a flat valley. When the wind is perpendicular to the mountains at 30 mph or faster, it races down the sides and then bounces upward giving remarkable lift. That lift is the wave Boettger surfed twice to record-breaking flights.
The wave is at its best in the stormy spring months of March, April and May.
When he gets a tow up into a blustery spring sky, both his sailplane and the tow plane are buffeted back and forth.
“People think it’s a little crazy but that’s the kind of stuff we need for this kind of strong mountain wave. It is not the safest flying, but it does present tremendous lift. The Sierra is the most powerful wave generator that we have in the United States. They produce some of the strongest mountain waves in the world.”
His April 3 flight was the longer of two very long flights Boettger has undertaken this spring.
The first was Easter Sunday, when he piloted his Kestrel sailplane up and down the Sierra in a route that stretched from Little Lake in the south to Susanville in the north. That flight left him in Palmdale, where his main support crew, wife Melissa, drove to meet him.
Because the storm over the Easter flight was so dry, the lenticular clouds that mark the lee wave weren’t available for the southern portion of his flight. That meant he had to go looking for the wave.
However, there was good moisture in the April 3 flight which provided the markers so Boettger could see where the wave was and where he had to struggle.
Between the Sierra and the lenticular clouds was a clear space Boettger could travel for miles without having to hunt for the lee wave.
Even with such a clear path, Boettger can’t fly straight down the slot, but has to tack into the wind to keep from being blown out of the wave, because just as there is a strong updraft on one side of the lee wave, there is a strong down draft on the other side.
Riding the wave is not without its hazards. Boettger is making his flights as the Sierra are socked in and must complete the ride before the storm arrives. Should clouds obscure the ground entirely, he loses the ability to find a safe place to land.
And as isolated as it seems, Boettger is not alone in skies he shares with airliners and military aircraft.
He carries a transponder that allows air traffic controllers to track his flight and warn powered aircraft away from him.
“They say they like me because I’m so slow, it is easy to make room for me,” he said. “But sometimes someone will be watching me on the radar and I’m almost not moving forward, but going up very fast and they will wonder what’s going on.”
At times the lee wave will give Boettger so much lift that it does seem he is going up as much as forward. Rather than just give him a 1,000-foot block of altitude to deal with, controllers often set aside large blocks of altitude for him to roam in.
On his Easter flight, he found himself at 27,000 feet and climbing at nearly a quarter of a mile a minute. At those altitudes, he is wearing an oxygen mask the entire time.
“It is kind of an eerie feeling when you are going as fast as the glider can go and it’s still going up and will not go down,” he said. “When you get up there it is -40 degrees outside. When you’re dealing with those kind of altitudes, any kind of oxygen malfunction and you have about two minutes to get down before you lose consciousness. You need to get down, pronto.”
Boettger carries a bail-out bottle that allows him three minutes of oxygen, should his main system fail. He also wears a parachute, but he has never used either the oxygen or the chute.
“I’ve never had a failure,” he said. “I wear a parachute, although having to bail out at those altitudes, the wind is going to beat you to death.”
Even seeing where he is going can be a challenge when flying the sailplane. The canopy tends to ice up at altitude and Boettger said he has had to occasionally fly the ship by looking out the vent hole on the side. All this while essentially lying propped up inside the aircraft with the instrument panel across his lap and his feet in the nose.
“People ask how you can sit there for 13 hours,” he said. “But you’re so focused that everything else whips by you timewise.”
Learning to fly
Boettger started flying sailplanes when he was 13, after his pilot father put him in his first cockpit. He soloed in a sailplane when he was 14 and finished his first solo flight in a powered aircraft on his 16th birthday.
After college, he joined the Navy and went to aviation officer candidate school. He served from 1988 to 1996, flying off aircraft carriers including the USS Ranger. Once his eight-year commitment was up, he left the service and started flying an MD-11 for Federal Express.
“All my powered flying is international,” he said. “But flying powered aircraft didn’t do much for me in terms of gratification. Covering 1,000 miles with no engine in the thing is fascinating to me. My true joy is jumping in that sailplane.”
When he’s not in the air, Boettger likes to ski, hike and kayak. He moved to a new North Valley home with Melissa. The couple married in October.
“Most people who fly just do it to fly around,” Melissa said. “Gordon flies to break records.”
A lot of help
In addition to Melissa, there are a lot of people who help Boettger break his records. Meteorologist Doug Armstrong is his chief connection to the weather in Northern Nevada.
“We look 14 days out at the jet stream to see if a front is approaching. We look at the moisture, how long it will last,” Boettger said. “A lot of times it will only be in the morning or evening. Luckily for these flights it was working all day.”
Without the help of Soar Minden tow pilot Mike Moore, Boettger couldn’t get off the ground.
Bob Semans has the job of downloading the sailplane’s flight information and sending it off to the national soaring association to make Boettger’s recordbreaking official.
Into the horizon
Breaking records by flying up and down the Sierra is one thing, but Boettger’s real dream is to ride the jet stream across the country.
Besides daylight, the Sierra just aren’t long enough to make the kind of flights they are doing in South America where they ride the lee wave off the Andes.
Boettger always has to watch the weather for his flights, but the thing he is waiting for is a fairly flat jet stream, which will allow him to fly east.
“I’d love to end up somewhere in Kansas after a distance flight,” he said.
He has made it as far east as Colorado, riding the jet stream, and he sees the progress he has made flying the lee wave as preparation for that flight one day when conditions are just right.