In their flimsy wooden-and-canvas glider, Deutschmann and Hirth were unexpectedly thrust skyward. News of this reached a young scientist and glider pilot called Joachim Kuettner, who became the first to study the phenomenon scientifically. At a gathering of gliding enthusiasts, he convinced pilots to carry recording instruments and to fly to the lee side of the hill. Analysis of the data they collected confirmed his suspicion that wind flowing over mountains generated downwind waves very similar to standing waves in river rapids.
On the front edge of each wave was a very smooth and powerful zone of lift.
Discovery and exploration of the New Zealand mountain-wave system had to await the exploits of Dick George son in the s. George son and a friend, Jon Hamilton, scratched up enough money to buy a Slings by Prefect glider. They used a Bentley to tow it fast enough to lift off, which it did at 55 kph. After four successful launches they had met the airworthiness criteria for graduation to aero-towing and were soon hitchhiking into the sky behind Tiger Moths.
So began the exploration of South Island skies by sailplane. With a northwester blowing on January 2, , George son took his little Prefect to the Two Thumbs Range near Lake Tekapo in an attempt to break the national altitude record.
It was a brilliant morning and the whole expanse of the Mackenzie Basin was unfolding before my eyes. Mount Cook stood out in splendor above the cloud that was pouring over the Copeland Saddle and around Mt Sefton.
There were the lakes beneath me and further south Lake Ohau sparkled in the distance. This was incredible—a far cry from the little ridge at Dunstable. The daring pursuit of cross-country flying was the next challenge. During World War II, bomber pilots flying long missions were the first to encounter extremely strong easterly winds at high altitude about 12, m. These winds became known as the jet stream. Having described mountain waves, Kuettner believed it would be possible to fly long distances in them using the jet stream.
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In March , Kuettner used this technique to make the first significant downwind flight. In a low-performance glider, he crossed seven mountain ranges and flew straight-line miles at altitudes of between 20, and 40, ft and 12, m at an average ground speed of 94 mph kph and a maximum ground speed in excess of mph kph. It was a remarkable achievement at a time when most aircraft could climb to only 10—12, ft — m and fly at mph kph.
Of course, the South Island runs perpendicular to the prevailing westerly winds and is too narrow for significant downwind flying. Georgeson wondered whether he could use the wave whose existence he had demonstrated to make long-distance crosswind, rather than downwind, flights. On February 8, , he flew 90 miles km in the first significant crosswind wave flight.
Six weeks later, on March 25, conditions looked ideal for another attempt. Slightly embarrassed, Georgeson conceded he was unable to provide the required information. Instead, he fudged the plan, presenting an ideal scenario, then took off miles km from his declared destination. Marking my position on the ground I held on to the lift and I started to climb well. Unlike Kuettner, who had the US air force behind him, Georgeson had the barest of resources, and this was the first occasion on which he used oxygen.
At 14, ft m he pulled his oxygen mask on, but the clip for holding it in place broke. For the rest of the flight he was forced to hold the mask to his face. Unsure whether he was getting enough oxygen to keep hypoxia—a shortage of oxygen in the body tissues—at bay he kept checking the whites of his nails to see if they had turned blue. He climbed well to 22, ft m and headed south along the leading edge of the wave—rather like a surfer cutting back along the face of a wave and riding it parallel to the beach.
It was incredibly exciting to be nearly touching it.
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At 22, ft I could see over the Southern Alps to the West Coast and I realised for the first time what a geographically narrow country we are. During the flight there were several heart-stopping bangs that made Georgeson wonder if his plane was integrating as a result of the extremes of wave flying. By the time I got to the Hakataramea Saddle I was at 12, ft and then, in the lee of the Grampians, I sailed into a beautiful strong silky wave surging to 22, ft. I was getting desperately cold and uncomfortable.
Over Palmerston, Georgeson reckoned he would clear Flagstaff by several thousand feet, so he pushed on to the Taieri basin. I was pretty surprised myself. So far Georgeson had travelled only one way.
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Was it possible to go in the opposite direction? How high did the wave extend? Was lift always to be found on the lee close to the mountains? Just how far could one go? Clearly, there were mighty possibilities. Right now, though, Georgeson had made the first major crosswind wave flight anywhere in the world, and his feat earned him international recognition. On December 16, , near Horarata just south of Christchurch, Georgeson appeared dressed more for polar exploration than the scorching temperatures of the northwester.
He had already soared higher than Mount Everest, setting a national Gain in Height record, but he wanted more. His oxygen system was now far more sophisticated than in the early days.
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A pressure demand regulator automatically delivered the appropriate level of oxygen for altitudes of up to 39, ft 11, m. After releasing the line, he hit a strong downdraft and it took every trick he knew just to stay airborne. A while later he struck a thermal that was slow to lift him and unpleasantly rough, and he struggled for an hour to reach a mere ft m. It was tremendously exciting.
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The only way Georgeson could go higher was to dive through the cloud, jumping from the wave he was on and re positioning himself upwind on the leading edge of a parallel—and hopefully larger—wave. At 19, ft m the lift stopped, and he decided to return to the wave he had just left. Again he climbed steadily to 25, ft, where a significant drop in temperature fogged up his canopy with a layer of frost. The cold began shrinking the cables to his ailerons, making control more difficult.
Georgeson soon passed his record of 32, ft m and worked hard to hold his position in the strong lift. Eventually his altimeter read 36, ft 11, m. The instruments were behaving strangely and were probably frozen. Nothing happened. Whenever glider pilots venture above 30, ft m , they breathe pure oxygen and the dangers increase dramatically.
Pressure breathing is unnatural and, as a result, Georgeson started hyperventilating. A pilot short of oxygen at 33, ft 10, m has 30—45 seconds of useful consciousness in which to react. I had to descend. By dint of sheer willpower he suppressed his emotions and took control of his breathing. Then I pulled again and again on the brakes. With every second the danger mounted. Panic gave way to relief and then to excitement once more when he contacted air-traffic control. I am at 35, ft descending over Porters Pass. I think I have a world record. If you look down you will probably see the DC 6 coming in from Australia.
It was a nice moment. Georgeson was left with more than memories. He had set a world record for Gain in Height, and the subzero temperatures had given him frostbite in his feet and the backs of his hands. Eventually the soles of his feet and the back of one hand peeled away and the resultant sores persisted for many months. They have spent the last three winters , and learning the idiosyncrasies of the local mountain-wave system.
Their operation is named the Perlan Project after the mother-of-pearl-coloured clouds found at high altitude, and aims to double the altitude record.
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For Enevoldson, the Perlan Project is about discovery and crossing into the unexplored. While working in Germany in , he noticed an image taken using a Lidar—a laser—radar hybrid that showed a beautiful sinusoidal pattern in the atmosphere between 65, and , ft 19, and 30, m. The science behind the Perlan Project is very sophisticated and requires expertise to match.
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