Quest: Looking for lift in all the right places
Last summer, Thierry
Thys and Al Grisemer took off from Carson City and headed to Point Barrow,
Alaska. Soaring from mountain range to mountain range, the twosome began
their intensive quest for lift, a journey that will take them to the very
tip of South America.
Modern advances in motor-gliders have only recently made these wild, remote
regions accessible to soaring pilots. Formerly, only the birds and insects
knew the coordinates of the secret centers of lift lying hidden in these
hinterlands. But all thats about to change.
Using a precise GPS data logger, the team is precisely charting each region
where they encounter lift. That information will be entered into a growing
databasepart of a large-scale plan to create a map of the world
outlining Earths regions of lift according to season.
From inside the cockpit, the team is recording their journey using a mini-DV,
wired into their radios and mikes. With CCD lipstick cameras mounted on
the tail and underside of the glider and controlled from the cockpit,
theyre documenting the flight and spectacular streams of animal
life that flow along the Spine of the Americas.
Having successfully completed the leg from Nevada to Point Barrow Alaska
and back, they are now headed for the wilds of South America. The months
of January and February provide the best time for gliding in the mountains
of the Southern Hemisphere. As they comb the Andean slopes searching for
lift, theyre sure to sidle astride condors and sail past herds of
guanaco grazing in the rocky altiplano.
Each night when the team lands, theyll convene with local soaring
gurus to glean suggestions and pointers for the next days destination.
Theyll be also checking in with their ground crews back home in
California and Reno--emailing them the days anecdotes and flight
data. Crew chief is Tierney Thys (Thierrys youngest daughter) and
the ground crew includes the entire Thys and Grisemer families, Brett Hobson,
Carl Herrold and Mike Johnson, who will keep track of the teams
progressposting updates to this website. As an additional bonus,
Mary Ann Kidders eager class at the Stead Elementary School in Reno,
Nevada is going to use the trip to learn the geography of South America.
Airship: Motor glider Extraordinaire
Such a comprehensive
quest for lift has only now been possible with the advent of reliable
motor gliders. The particular airship, the team has chosen is already
legendary in the world of soaring--the Stemme S10VT.
Far surpassing the performance of its predecessors, the Stemme S10VT just
received FAA approval in 1997. A 75-foot wingspan and superb aerodynamics
give this craft a 50:1 glide ratio. For every mile of vertical altitude
gained, the glider can soar horizontally for at least fifty miles. Thats
over three times better than any soaring bird can muster.
Because it has an engine, the Stemme requires no tow plane. Once aloft,
the pilot can shut down the engine, triggering the prop to fold up neatly
behind the nose cone. And with that quick transition, the craft instantly
becomes one with the wind.
The Dangers: What goes up
must come down
pilots routinely parallel portions of the same route this twosome will
follow. . . . but with one important difference. Airline pilots expressly
avoid the regions the Stemme team will actively seek-- the dangerous areas
renowned for their turbulence. Air masses around mountains and thunderheads
are nightmares for commercial airliners. Winds can reach speeds of over
300 miles an hour and the shear alone can rip the wings right off a plane.
But these same arenas provide dreamscapes for glider pilots who can test
their skills at reading the secrets of the skies. Like sailing, skiing
and surfing, soaring requires becoming intimately familiar with nature
and her many moods. But the greatest thrills come from taking that gathered
knowledge and familiarity and stepping out into the unknown.
The seductive thrill of pushing the limits in soaring and the sky has
claimed the lives of many experienced pilots. Just three years ago, the
head of Smithsonians Air and Space Museum, Vice Admiral Donald Engen
and flying ace William Ivans, spiraled to their deaths in Minden, Nevada
when the wing of their motorized glider snapped off at 11,000 feet. From
Icarus, to the father of gliding, Otto Lilienthal, to later pioneers like
Robert Symons and August Raspet, soaring has certainly taken its share
of sacrifices. And yet the passion persists.
The joys of
living at the whim of the wind, experiencing the world as a bird, spiraling
into giant whirlpools, surfing aerial tsunamis on the backside of mountain
tops, tapping the immense energy of the planet for a free lift ticket
to the stratospherethese are joys that, for Thierry and Al, know
no equal. Lift will be their guiding force wherever and whenever they
find it. Its that element of uncertainty and surprise that is perhaps
the most intriguing part of this journey. As Thierry states: "The
essence of an adventure lies in the unexpected. And thats what were
most looking forward to on this trip. If you script everything out, then
its merely a confirmation, not a true adventure."