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The 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 that’s 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 database—part of a large-scale plan to create a map of the world outlining Earth’s 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, they’re 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, they’re sure to sidle astride condors and sail past herds of guanaco grazing in the rocky altiplano.
Each night when the team lands, they’ll convene with local soaring gurus to glean suggestions and pointers for the next day’s destination. They’ll be also checking in with their ground crews back home in California and Reno--emailing them the day’s anecdotes and flight data. Crew chief is Tierney Thys (Thierry’s 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 team’s progress—posting updates to this website. As an additional bonus, Mary Ann Kidder’s eager class at the Stead Elementary School in Reno, Nevada is going to use the trip to learn the geography of South America.

The 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. That’s 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

Commercial airline 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 Smithsonian’s 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 Payoff

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 stratosphere—these are joys that, for Thierry and Al, know no equal. Lift will be their guiding force wherever and whenever they find it. It’s 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 that’s what we’re most looking forward to on this trip. If you script everything out, then it’s merely a confirmation, not a true adventure."