Hey, I Flew That!
Some of the airplanes in the National Air and Space Museum stir personal memories.
- By Rebecca Maksel
- Air & Space magazine, November 2013
(Page 3 of 3)
Harris had heard of Paul Bickle’s 1961 altitude record—46,267 feet—and decided to try to break it. “I knew nothing about high-altitude flying,” says Harris. But he eventually partnered with someone who did: Jim Meyer, a U-2 pilot. He and Meyer flew together in the two-seat Twin for three years.
“We accumulated a lot of information,” says Harris, “and we were learning gradually what made mountain waves. We had 12 flights over 30,000 feet, and five flights over 35,000 feet. The highest we ever got was 39,800 feet.”
When Meyer had to drop out of the world-record quest, Harris sold his Twin and bought the Grob 102, previously owned by Sabrina Jackintell, the women’s altitude record holder.
On February 17, 1986, Harris made his daily stop at the nearby weather station. “Everything was there,” he recalls. “I had been looking for this for years. All the clouds were there, ready and waiting for me.”
Harris was supposed to be taking his son to the airport and picking up a new puppy—instead, he headed for California City. Once the Grob was towed to 9,000 feet, Harris released and drifted up the Owens Valley. At 41,000 feet, his canopy frosted over completely. “I had never flown on instruments before,” Harris says. He remembers smiling as he passed Bickle’s record. As his eyes began to water, the tears froze and became ice cobwebs. At 49,009 feet the temperature was -65 degrees Fahrenheit, and Harris’ oxygen supply began to fail. He headed back to Earth and realized he was in a spiral dive. “I think I had lost concentration for just a tad,” he says. He took control of the situation—gently. “At that point my plane is very cold, very brittle, and I don’t want to stress it.”
Just four hours after taking off, Harris landed, having set a world record that would last for 20 years. “The weather doesn’t come along that often,” says Harris. “This is like hitting the double jackpot in Las Vegas.”