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Art Greenfield with the Spirit of Freedom capsule in which Steve Fossett circled the globe alone in 2002. (Eric Long)

The Witness

Want to set a record-breaking flight? You’ll need an observer from the National Aeronautic Association.

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The National Aeronautic Association is the official record keeper for U.S. aviation, tracking nearly 100 record attempts each year. Along with 10 observers, Art Greenfield, Director of Contests and Records, verifies it all: from jets to parachutes to gliders—even spacecraft. Associate Editor Rebecca Maksel spoke with Greenfield last summer.

Air & Space: How does one become a records observer?

Greenfield: We’ve got a Contest and Records Board that’s responsible for overseeing all the airplane records that are set here in the United States. That’s where our observers come from. Currently there are 10 people on our Contest and Records Board. All the Board members are volunteers, and are not paid for their time.

A&S: Wow, just 10? I wouldn’t think that would be enough people.

Greenfield: For the 100 or so records that we have every year, probably three quarters of those are airplane records, and the percentage of those that require observers is probably only 10 or 15 percent. There’s not a huge demand for observers. A lot of the records that are set are for speed-over-recognized-course, and city-to-city types of records—Los Angeles to New York, for example—we use air traffic controllers to certify the times. 

A&S: Is there a particular record (or records) that people try most often to break?

Greenfield: Well, I think the majority, probably 50 percent or so, would be city-to-city records. But in addition to airplane records we have records for ballooning and hang-gliding and paragliding and sailplanes, and the list goes on. 

A&S: Can you tell me the record that has remained unbroken for the longest period of time?

Greenfield: That’s an easy one. What instantly comes to mind was the record set by Mario Pezzi. I’ve had a lot of people ask about that record over the years. That was a record for altitude in a piston-engine airplane: 56,047 feet. 

A&S: Why do you think it has not been broken?

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