More Than 9-1/4 Miles Straight Up
In 1978, Robert Harris first rode a sailplane into the sky and the experience enthralled him. Harris set about breaking the world glider altitude record after he discovered that no one had bested the mark that Paul Bickle had set on February 21, 1961, when he reached 46,267 ft.

To prepare for an attempt at the record, Harris spent five years working his way ever higher. First, he soared to 20,000 ft and then 35,000 ft. Twice he topped 38,000 ft and during the spring of 1985, he reached 40,000 ft. Harris made all of these flights after taking off from an airport near the town of Independence in the Owens Valley region of central California and soaring above the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shortly before 1 p.m. on February 17, 1986, a tow plane hauled Harris and the Grob 102 Standard Astir III aloft. He unhooked the towline and soon found weak lift that he worked to an altitude of 35,000 ft. Strong lift then pushed the glider up at 600-800 ft per minute. By the time he had reached 38,000 ft, frost completely covered the canopy and Harris began to fly solely by reference to his instruments. At 42,000 ft, his eyes began to water but the teardrops froze and immediately formed ice cobwebs. Even five layers of clothing could not insulate him from temperatures that dropped to minus 65-70 degrees F inside the cockpit. A failing oxygen system forced him to stop his record climb at 49,009 ft and he returned triumphantly to earth using backup oxygen.

Many applauded Harris's achievement but the Federal Aviation Administration criticized the pilot for flying in controlled airspace without permission. On June 4, 1997, Robert Harris and his wife, Susan Rothermund, donated their Standard Astir III to the National Air and Space Museum.

Robert Harris

Grob 102 Standard Astir III

Image Taken from Hubble Space Telescope