Around 2:30 a.m. Monday, record-setting glider pilot Gordon Boettger and co-pilot Bruce Campbell launched their craft into the night sky. By the time they landed, 17 hours and 25 minutes later, they had set a new record of 3,055 kilometers or 1,898 miles, the longest glider flight in history.
Because the glider uses a rocket motor to take off, there wasn’t any crew or tow plane there to help them get aloft.
Unlike some propellor driven gliders, Boettger said the rocket motor retracts completely when it’s not in use, reducing the drag.
And since both men were wearing night vision goggles, which are absolutely necessary for flying a glider at night, they were able to take off at 2:30 a.m., without the runway lights and climbed to about 8,000 feet above sea level as the Sierra Wave built up around them.
Boettger had been watching the weather, which brought gusty winds to Carson Valley on Monday. Minden-Tahoe Airport was experiencing 30 mph gusts as the two men readied the glider for take-off.
“We saw this weather pattern setting up, which is unusual for this time of year,” Boettger said on Wednesday. “Normally, we get these in wintertime.”
The glider itself, which Boettger calls “tricked out for long distance flights,” came with the night vision goggles, which extended the amount of time a pilot could remain flying.
The Sierra Wave is the wind pattern that makes Carson Valley a mecca for soaring. West winds compressed by the Sierra bounce off the Valley floor providing loft. The Wave isn’t reliant on thermals which develop during the day due to ground heating.
Boettger, a former Navy pilot, has been riding the Sierra Wave for years when he isn’t working his regular job flying Boeing “Triple 7s” for Fed Ex. Campbell is a recently retired Fed Ex pilot.
“I called Bruce and asked, ‘if you’re up to attempt a long flight?’”
Wearing the night goggles was a different experience, and one that comes with its own issues.
“Watching with the (goggles) it was amazing to see the sky,” he said. “The Milky Way was blowing up, there were shooting stars all over the place — it was absolutely breathtaking. We were at 23,000 feet in the middle of nowhere. It really kind of opened a whole new door.”
The two men made six legs, flying south to Inyokern before turning to fly north.
“We flew up to Hallelujah Junction, but the weather wasn’t favorable,” he said.
The next northern run took them to Sparks before turning back south to Inyokern before making the last run north, where Boettger said his goal was to get to Alturas, where it was reportedly snowing.
“We ran into too much weather, so we picked the next suitable alternative,” he said. “We managed to land at Cedarville. It was the longest glider flight in history.”
The previous 3,009-kilometer record was set by Klaus Ohlmann in 2003 in the Andes, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale web site.
Boettger’s wife, Melissa, called the Modoc County Sheriff’s Office, since the small town was essentially shut down when they landed at 8 p.m.
“Here we were wearing big red mountaineering suits as the deputies helped us out and got the glider tied down,” he said. “We thought we might have to sleep under the wing, but they found us a motel.”
Having a place to sleep didn’t mean they slept. Boettger said he didn’t sleep for three days.
Unlike previous flights, online technology has caught up to recording the endeavor and allows people to track it at www.weglide.org
“It’s neat because you can track everything now,” he said. “The whole world was watching, and people were saying, ‘I went to bed, and then woke up and you’re still up there flying.’”
The tracker recorded when Boettger turned off the rocket motor at the beginning of the flight, which was the official start for the record. If he had turned it back on, that would have ended the official record.
“It’s recording parameters every second, taking GPS, lat and long,” he said.
Because the goggles pick up any light, even the full moon can be extremely bright.
“Any kind of light that’s not natural blows up,” Boettger said. “When you fly over here, it looks like Sacramento is right next to you. We saw lights in the Sierra peppered too high for cabins that must have been climbers.”