Amelie met Gordon Boettger during last Soaring Society of America Convention in Reno this winter. She met Gordon but also Jim Payne who are deeply involved in many impressive projects which have connection outside of the gliding world. Interview performed on July 2023 after the 3000km flight made by Boettger and Campbell on the 16th of June.
Amelie Holighaus: Hi Gordon, congratulations for this crazy flight! How long have you planned this flight in advance?
Gordon Boettger: I had not planned at all for a 3000km flight for this flight. Because the wave conditions were not forecast to be that good and to end by 1400 that day in the Minden area and north of Minden, I figured maybe a 2500km flight would be the absolute maximum distance achievable. It’s quite interesting that after my NVG “test” flights soon before this flight, there was a lot of interest and therefore interviews and articles written. In a few of those articles there was mention of a 3000km flight that could happen in the future. Never did I believe that would happen only a few weeks after these articles were published.
AH: I guess 3000km is just a first step? How much do you think you can reach during next world records attempts after this "proof of concept" that a night-shift is possible?
GB: I think from the Minden area where I fly that 3000km should be attainable on a relatively common basis using 6 legs about one to three times per year. I believe this to be true because on the day I flew the conditions were about a 5 out of 10. I do honestly think that 4000km is attainable but only with 6 legs. This will be my next focus as well as huge triangles and downwind flights.
AH: In Europe, it is very unlikely to get an authorization in a glider to fly IFR. What does a glider need in the USA to be IFR compliant? If I understood that right, you received your IFR-clearance after take-off and after flying for a few minutes. Is it that easy accepted?
GB: What allows me to fly above FL180 is a Letter of Agreement (LOA) between me and the controlling Air Traffic Control Centers. I have had an LOA for many years now. They are not simply handed out to anyone that wants one. There is a long process and certain pilot requirements that are required. Through the years I believe I have gained a level of trust with ATC. Normally I must contact the ATC facility and advise them of my intentions with an IFR flight plan and by speaking with the supervisor. Because a glider is unique operating in Class A (above FL180), the controllers must be fully aware of what they are dealing with. The LOA specifies this so we are all on the “same sheet of paper".
AH: Was it difficult to take-off just with the Night Vision Googles and no runway lights?
GB: Taking off from a very dark runway with NVG’s takes a bit of practice because one does not have the wide field of view that we have during the day. Our peripheral vision is limited, so keeping the wings level requires an added bit of concentration and feel. It’s so much fun though. It’s an incredible feeling and reminds me of the old days to taking off and landing from the aircraft carrier.
AH: For such a long flight, how did you manage the energy in the batteries? Do you have an extra-modification for that? It gets quite cold and while flying for over 17 hours, at one point normal batteries definitely will be exhausted.
GB: This was definitely a concern of mine later in the flight. In the beginning, I didn’t think much of it at all because I thought the flight would be no more than about 10-11 hours. On this flight I had two larger batteries in the back seat on the floor that I believe were about 30Ah per battery and then we have the fin battery. I think what really saved the batteries from going dead after that time was having the solar panels on the engine bay during the time the sun was up. During the last 2.5 hours I became very concerned so I turned a few nonessential instruments off. I didn’t trust the fin battery because it was sitting in the extreme cold in the tail. I now know I have to add more battery power since some flights might reach over 20 hours in the future.
AH: Is the Arcus a glider really adapted to make this kind of very special flights (at night, at a high altitude) and attempt records like you do?
GB: I really could not ask for a better platform for this type of flying. A big problem for me is that I am 1.95m tall so a large cockpit is required. The Arcus has a very large cockpit and has the needed space for oxygen and batteries that allow for very long flights. The wing span is ideal because it’s easy to handle during crosswinds and in conditions such as very strong turbulence in rotor. Flying a “supership” such as an EB29 could become unsafe during times with strong crosswinds on the ground and during times of extreme turbulence in rotor.
AH: We are curious about some details on your equipments, for example can you explain more about your gliding suit: Are there any special features to ensure you will „endure“ this kind of super long flight in such a limited space glider’s „cabin“ because it seems it is all about endurance so you need some comfort?
GB: I have always had strong feelings of not having to trust electrically heated clothing to keep me warm because if that fails then the flight would be over due to the extreme cold. For this reason I wear an expedition suit, the exact ones that are used to climb big mountains in the Himalayas. It’s quite bulky but very comfortable. I must also factor in having something warm during these wave flights because they usually happen in the winter and spring months when it’s still cold on the ground. If there is a bailout situation I feel that I could survive the temperatures during a bailout and on the ground overnight. I do wear warm boots with a heated electric sole that I can plug into the battery if needed, but I have not had to rely on that yet.
AH: As this kind of flight is very experimental, do you have some equipments specially designed for the glider to be able to reach your goals, or do you test equipments which were designed for other purposes but adapted to your needs?
GB: Icing on the canopy is always a problem, so a “clear vision panel” is installed to keep the canopy clear. When wave flying at high altitude, having backups is also very important. What I’m talking about here are extra regulators and independent oxygen systems. I also constantly monitor my blood saturation level which is quite important. The environment up there is obviously quite unforgiving, so one must always think of what can kill you. I have made many mistakes but have learned from them, whether it’s having drinking water lines freeze or oxygen regulator issues. I now have a routine and equipment list. And it’s quite overwhelming getting putting all of this equipment and supplies into the cockpit.
AH: Do you think your experiences with a glider like this record attempts can also have some usable concepts to be used on other sport or explorations in the future?
GB: Absolutely!!! Where do I start. If someone wants to do studies with oxygen levels in the blood, clothing testing, fatigue, dehydration, studies of sitting for long periods, etc. These all seem to tie into sports such as mountaineering and long endurance sports where these things are a factor on human performance. I would be happy to have some partnerships so that I can include certain studies into these long flights. If we can learn something else about the human body or improving what we wear in extreme temperatures to improve our lives, that sure would be an added bonus to the flying part of it. Imagine what having a sponsor such as North Face or Mountain Hardware could do for soaring sport.
AH: During 17 hours you miss about 2-3 meals. How do you balance it/what do you eat and drink during such a long and exhausting flight?
GB: This seems to really depend on the person. For me, I try not to eat too much before a planned long flight. That’s for obvious reason… , but during the flight I eat Cliff Bars (another possible sponsor) but have to keep them warm otherwise it’s like chewing on wood sticks. I think I only had two Cliff Bars during the entire flight. When we landed, there was no place to eat that night so we had to wait for breakfast. To me it didn’t matter because I was so excited.
AH: And the questions we all want to ask: is it easy to pee at 8000 meters high?
GB: It’s not any different than down low with the exception of what us men refer to in the US as “shrinkage” when it’s very cold outside. The men will understand…
Visit WeGlide for the trace of the flight : https://www.weglide.org/flight/291438