Riding The Mountain Wave

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When pilots Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson reached 50,699 feet in a glider over the Andes last week, there was more to it than just catching another world record. The pair was conducting scientific research on atmospheric phenomena, trying to learn more about the structure of mountain waves and how they interact with polar winds. Because the stratosphere is generally stable, with no thermal lifting, the only way for a glider to get up there is to hitch a ride on mountain waves. The objective of Fossett and his team was to "surf" from one wave to another, to climb as high as possible. They tried for five seasons on three continents before reaching their target height, surpassing the 1986 record by 1,662 feet. The glider was released from a tow plane at 13,000 feet, and took four hours to reach its highest altitude. The crew wore spacesuits on loan from NASA to survive in the unpressurized aircraft. The record will be certified by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.