Bob Harris should be basking. Not merely in the thrill of a being the holder of a world’s record, but in the knowledge that every guy who was ever plagued by a mid-life crisis or Walter Mittyitis is shaking his head in naked admiration.
It is 1978 and Harris, owner of a Riverside hardware store who is in his late 40s and recently divorced, passes a place offering rides in gliders. What the heck, he gets in. What the heck, he goes out and buys one.
Harris is not the kind of guy who sets goals--he dismisses himself as “a non-achiever"--but once he’s bought his glider a stray fact keeps pulling at his coat: On Feb. 25, 1961, a man named Paul Bikle flew a glider to an altitude of 46,267 feet over the high desert north of Edwards Air Force Base. Nobody in the world has ever topped it.
What the heck, Harris says to himself, I’ll try.
For years he studies the delicate meteorology that creates the tall waves of air that occasionally push gliders to spectacular heights. He makes daily trips to the local weather station. He buys a more sophisticated glider. And then, on Feb. 17, 1986, he catches the most beautiful “mountain wave” he’s ever seen and rides it to a height of 49,009 feet.
On top of that, he does it without wearing a pressure suit (which everybody tells him he ought to wear at that altitude if he doesn’t want a bubble blocking a blood vessel), using just oxygen and five layers of clothing to protect himself against the minus-80-degree temperature. And on top of that, he beats out a fancy corporate-sponsored organization that’s spent four years trying for the same record.
Ahhh, triumph. Champagne. Satisfac--
Knock, knock, knock.
It’s the Federal Aviation Administration. Bob Harris is in trouble. He’s about to have his pilot’s license revoked.
For although Harris’ flight was certified by the national and international associations that govern soaring, he made it without obtaining permission from the FAA’s air traffic controllers, who by federal law must maintain “positive control” over any pilot who flies higher than 18,000 feet, where jetliners roam.
Harris does not deny that he broke the rules. But he contends that many high-altitude glider pilots do the same. He believes that he has been unfairly singled out simply because he went public with his high-altitude flight to claim the record.
“It’s turned out to be the worst year,” he says. “I’m very bitter about it.”
The FAA’s proposed revocation of Harris’ license, which is still pending, has made life awkward for the Soaring Society of America. While the 16,000-member organization certified Harris’ record, it also prides itself on working closely with the FAA on safety issues.
The soaring society’s magazine has virtually ignored Harris’ flight, merely listing it at the end of a small-print table of new records and soaring badges without comment. By contrast, Outside, a national magazine devoted to outdoorsmen, recently lauded Harris’ accomplishment as one of the top 10 feats of 1986.
The question of whether Harris should be praised for his persistence and daring or condemned for potentially hurting other glider pilots’ access to controlled air space has divided rank-and-file pilots, most of whom engage in cross-country flying rather than risking high altitudes.
Clearly, Harris’ flight was a testament to the romantic spirit that makes men and women want to soar without the constraints of engines or other people or, most importantly, other people’s rules.
Flying gliders at high altitude without FAA approval “is something that people have done all the time,” said ex-altitude record-holder Bikle, a former Air Force aeronautical engineer and retired director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. “If you spent all the time getting clearances, most of the time you wouldn’t get them until after the (optimum weather) conditions are gone.”
Added another Southland glider pilot who has held several soaring records, “We know there’s a problem with potential mid-airs (collisions) but up there it’s actually God’s country.
“We’re just going to do what we have to do,” said the pilot, who asked that his name not be used because he, too, was flying above 18,000 feet without air traffic control permission on the day Harris set his record. “It’s the adventure of it. Even if the SSA (the soaring society) stopped keeping records, even if the FAA took away my license, I’d still do it.”
Bob Harris, now 54, does not talk that way. Of course, Harris does not look like anybody’s stereotype of a pilot. He’s less gruff, more hyperactive, less guarded about his anxiety. He can’t recite the specs of his $30,000 glider. He wears a neat white-flecked beard and carries an oversized wallet. He might be a college instructor.
Harris had done well enough with his hardware store to become semi-retired by the time his obsession with soaring began. His only background in flying came from having worked on jets as an engineer in the Air Force. So during each high-altitude “wave” season, roughly November through March, he would make one or more daily visits to Ron Hamilton, the head of the National Weather Service’s Riverside station, to determine how good the soaring weather would be.
What he was looking for was a hard flow of air from the Pacific that hits the Sierra Nevada and, in effect, bounces up to seven times the height of the ridges, creating the mountain waves. The winds have to increase steadily as they rise and not be too moist or too cold.
“You spend your time looking for a lift,” Harris said. Eight or 10 times a season he found weather good enough to fly, and he gradually increased the height of his soaring, above 20,000 feet, then above 30,000, then twice above 38,000, all the while seeking out other pilots and mechanics for advice.
It was slow going. Bikle’s record had stood so long, both Bikle and Harris agreed, because breaking it required years of vigilance and a lot of luck to be ready to fly on the lone day when the weather was just right.
“I don’t know of anybody else who geared their life to it,” Harris said. “It takes living your life throughout the winter months being ready to drop everything else in case the weather changed. I had a (new) wife who went along with me.”
As 1984 passed, he had been at it for nearly four years, and it was taking its toll. Frustrated, his patience ebbing, he decided to quit and sell the glider. One day he began cleaning out his equipment.
“After 15 minutes it felt like a funeral,” he said. “I stopped.”
He tried to explain.
“I’d never pursued anything this obsessively. I’m not a brave person, not a person who likes to take chances with my life. But I was more afraid of not achieving my goal than anything else.”
A while later, in the spring of 1985, he flew to 40,000 feet.
In the middle of last February, the forecast for the next five or six days looked especially promising. Harris told his wife, Susan, to put their plans on hold. He would be at the airport in California City, a popular Kern County base for gliders.
Also at the airport were members of a group called Flight Level 500, organized by a Massachusetts airline pilot, Bruce Brosi, who had attracted extensive corporate sponsorship to his plan to break Bikle’s solo record and an older, lower-altitude record by a two-passenger glider.
The presence of the rival (whose name is shorthand for 50,000 feet) made Harris nervous.
“Look, I never wanted to go into racing competition, that’s why I picked altitude flying, but this was like watching a pair of racing cars at the starting line,” he said.
Over several days, he flew twice but did not achieve record heights. Nor did Level 500. He headed home, paralyzed by anxiety.
“I was completely exhausted by the idea that I’d worked at this five years and now somebody else would break it. I did not want to get into a sailplane. I hated the idea of flying. I told Susan, ‘I’m not flying tomorrow. I’ve had it.’ ”
However, the next morning, as always, he stopped in at the local weather station and, from readings there and other locations, saw “the best conditions I’d seen in five years.”
He got in his red ’63 Porsche and drove to California City. There he arranged for an observer and a sealed barograph, which would record the altitude. He put on his layered clothing, his after-ski boots and his Sears cold-weather work suit. An airplane towed him into the air and released him over Inyokern at 12,500 feet, and the winds took him up at between 1,000 and 1,500 feet per minute.
For two hours, he climbed upward. He was above 30,000 feet when the inside of his cockpit window started frosting. He used his flight instruments to stay on course. The cold made his eyes tear. The tears turned into little cobwebs around his eyes. His feet were cold. He flipped on the battery-powered heaters inside his boots. They didn’t work. The sky, blue below, was nearly black above. He reached 40,000 feet but his climbing rate was down to about 200 feet per minute. “I did not feel that the lift would continue.”
Then, at 42,000 feet, the highest he had ever gone, the lift increased, beyond 300 feet per minute, and within 15 minutes he saw his altimeter pass 46,270--beyond Bikle’s mark.
“I smiled a big, broad grin that I wish I had a picture of,” he said.
There were more distractions. The air pressure was so slim that his oxygen mask would not stay on tightly. He had to use one hand to press it against his face. His sinuses were “popping.” He felt something, like a worm, crawling on his leg.
These were the kinds of sensations a pilot in an unpressurized environment gets when he spends too much time this high. Harris’ refusal to use a pressure suit (unlike members of Flight Level 500) stunned the gliding world.
“It absolutely blew me away,” said Larry Sanderson, executive director of the soaring association.
Henry Combs, a veteran glider pilot, said he had tried to get Harris to change his mind. “He was pressing the limits of human capability,” Combs said.
Harris admits that his choice was “unsmart” but says he was determined to keep the project “simple” and didn’t want to fuss with the training needed to use a pressure suit. However, “I have no desire to repeat that incident,” he said. Physiologically and emotionally, “I was on the tippy edge. I was on the edge all over.”
As Harris set his record, Flight Level 500’s members were on edge, too. Like Harris, they realized how good the weather was. Like Harris, they planned to fly. But unlike Harris, they played by the rules and telephoned the FAA’s Air Route Traffic Control Center in Palmdale. Controllers there told them that high-altitude gliding would not be permitted because of potential conflict with that day’s jetliner traffic.
The day’s events poisoned relations between Harris and Brosi, director of Flight Level 500.
Harris and his supporters claim that it was Brosi, jealous of Harris’ achievement, who reported him to the FAA. Brosi denies that and claims that Harris was guilty of “a premeditated act of air terrorism” that should be punished by federal criminal charges, not merely the loss of his pilot’s license.
Brosi, who flies jetliners for USAir, complained: “I’m tired of sitting on the edge of my seat worried about some glider pilot at 30,000 feet.”
Actually, according to controllers who monitor the popular Southland gliding area above the high desert, gliders present few problems for airliners. However, controllers acknowledge that they cannot always tell when gliders are there. Because they are small and contain very little metal, they don’t show up on radar screens.
FAA attorney Richard Wittry, who prepared the revocation action against Harris, called it an “exceptional case.”
According to the FAA’s proposed action, filed last November, Harris not only failed to request permission to fly into a controlled area but also lacked the required license to fly under instrument rules. He also flew in an area used by jetliners between Fresno and Las Vegas, the FAA said.
His actions violated the federal aviation regulation against flying “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another,” Wittry said.
(Harris does have a standing letter of agreement with Edwards Air Force Base to fly his glider over space controlled by the military. Much of his flight was made in this area. However, the day of his flight was a federal holiday and authority for regulating that space had been turned over to the FAA. The letter of agreement must be activated by a phone call whenever a glider pilot wants to use a “window” of controlled air space. The FAA says no such call was made.)
License revocations by the FAA are rare. Between June, 1981, and June, 1986, the FAA pursued enforcement actions against 1,108 pilots from Santa Barbara to San Diego for a myriad of violations but took away the pilot’s license in only 42 cases.
In his case, Harris said, revocation is not justified because his flight took place in far less crowded airspace than the Los Angeles International Airport’s Terminal Control Area, where air-space violators are usually punished by license suspension. (According to FAA records, no pilot has had his license revoked for violating the Los Angeles TCA in the last six years.)
FAA attorney Wittry said that pressure on the agency to step up enforcement in the wake of last August’s collision over Cerritos between a small plane and a jetliner, which killed 82 persons, did not contribute to the harshness of the recommended action against Harris.
Harris’ allies don’t believe it.
“Bob’s a victim of circumstance,” Bikle said. “After all this talk about near misses . . . there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on the FAA by political sources to do something. When you set a record like he did, it puts it right out in the open.”
Bob Harris said he always recognized that he might get into trouble. But he put it this way:
“If you had been going after something for five years and you knew there was going to be a little tangle or two, would you let that stop you?”
Suppose he knew that one of those tangles was going to keep him from flying anymore?
Harris thought about it for a couple seconds.
“It was still worth it,” he said.