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SKY JOCKS of the SIERRA : Riding the Mountain Wave, Glider Pilots Push the Limits of Powerless Flight in the Treacherous Blue Yonder

August 30, 1992|DAN WEIKEL | Dan Weikel is a Times staff writer whose last story for this magazine was "The Lost Commandos," about Vietnamese who had undertaken guerrilla assignments for the United States

EIGHT MILES UP, THE BEAUTY AND RISK ARE SEDUCTIVE. TOWERing clouds frame the Owens Valley, and Mt. Whitney looks like a speck in the haze. All is quiet except for the occasional radio transmission and rush of air along the carbon-fiber wings. Airspeed, altitude, rate of climb and position must be checked constantly and adjusted. The mental focus is so sharp, there is nothing except flying.

Up here, above 40,000 feet, the wild blue yonder is just that in a sailplane--wild. Unconsciousness occurs within 15 seconds if the oxygen systems fail. The air pressure is so low that potentially lethal nitrogen gas expands in the blood and tissue.

Outside, the wind gusts to 110 miles an hour, making it tricky to stay in an updraft. With the temperature dropping to minus-80 degrees Fahrenheit, it's like flying in a deep-freeze. Warmth comes from long underwear, woolen pants, a parka and electric socks. But none of that will prevent the glider's wings from turning brittle in the subzero air, or keep heavy frost from covering the canopy.

Considering all the instruments, insulation and oxygen equipment crammed into the slender cockpit, a coffin would be more roomy. Hours pass in the tight confines as the pilot maneuvers the engineless aircraft skyward. Yet, discomfort pales compared to the intense rush of being carried aloft by the powerful winds that slam into California's Sierra Nevada--the top of the pyramid for local sailplane jocks.

The stimulating journey up the ziggurat starts at a gritty airstrip off Highway 14 in the high desert, a few miles northeast of Mojave. Beyond the "Taco Tec" sign boasting of the "Biggest Burrito on Earth," an old sailplane trailer, gleaming white amid sage and Joshua trees, points the way. The turnoff leads to the airport at California City, a stretch of sun-beaten asphalt surrounded by corrugated-steel hangars. To the earthbound who drive between Southern California and the Sierra, this weathered airfield is a place to pay $50 for a quick thrill in a sailplane over the dun-colored landscape. But this is also the runway to rarefied air.

California City is similar to other bare-bones glider ports except for one thing. For more than a decade it has been the roost of a small brotherhood of aviation purists with an obsession to chase a phenomenon they call "mountain wave"--the elusive currents of air forced to great heights by Sierra granite. Nowhere else in the western United States have so many top record-holders and skilled sailplane pilots concentrated in one spot.

"The wave conditions at California City Airport are some of the best in the world," says Gene Hammond, president of the Soaring Society of America, which has about 14,000 members. "Those guys are really trying to take it to the limit, that's for sure."

Although many people fly sailplanes for recreation, only a handful of pilots usually have the time, dedication and official safety and control clearances from the U.S. Air Force or federal aviation authorities to pursue major records from the Sierra.

There are the high fliers like Robert Harris, 60, a Riverside hardware-store owner who holds the world sailplane altitude record. At 48, in the midst of a divorce and a midlife crisis, he paid $25 and took his first sailplane ride. Eight years later, the high-strung Harris soared solo to 49,009 feet, almost 15,000 feet above the cruising altitude for most commercial airliners.

Harris' affable sidekick is Jim Myer, also of Riverside, a former Air Force captain and decorated Vietnam War veteran. Drilling holes through the sky in a Cessna just isn't satisfying, he says, compared with the skills demanded to stay aloft in a sailplane. For the past five years, Myer, 49, now a plastics manufacturer, has teamed up with Harris in an attempt to soar to 55,000 feet, the threshold of the stratosphere.

Close relatives to the altitude men are the cross-country pilots, such as Mike Koerner, 37, of Harbor City, a mechanical engineer who set the U.S. distance record of 903 miles, and Henry Combs, 75, of Canyon Country, a member of the Soaring Society's Hall of Fame. He and Koerner have their sights on the world distance record of 907 miles, which was set by Hans Werner Grosse in Germany in 1972.

Accomplished at both altitude and cross-country flying is Harold Katinszky, 35, of Redondo Beach, a pilot for Premier Air Charter Service in Santa Monica, who has held 17 state and national records for speed, distance and altitude since 1980.

In an age of computerized cockpits, sophisticated planes and heavily regulated airspace, these individuals form a bastion of stick-and-rudder types who would rather fly by the seat of their pants. For years, they have flown for little more than personal enjoyment and a few lines of agate type in the Soaring Society handbook. Every once in a while a record falls, and they throw a party.

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