Former NASA Flight Research Center director Paul Bikle's record altitude flight in his Schweizer 1-23E sailplane 50 years ago was depicted on canvas by noted aerospace artist Mike Machat. Fifty years ago, on Feb. 25, 1961, the late Paul Bikle set out for a sailplane flight that he hoped would set an altitude record. His quest was not to be denied.
Bikle, then center director of NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base and president of the Soaring Society of America, was an avid and accomplished sailplane pilot with several records to his name already. He was aware of the Sierra Wave program in Bishop, Calif., during the 1950s, during which sailplane pilots gathered to explore high-altitude waves of air for potential soaring lift, and he'd flown in national and international sailplane competitions. A fiercely competitive pilot, Bikle devoted every weekend to soaring, and his children were part of the team.
On the cold and windy February afternoon, Bikle and his son John headed to Lancaster's Fox Airfield, where his Schweizer 1-23E sailplane was positioned for launch, recalled eldest son Hugh Bikle during a recent colloquium presentation about the record flight at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center. Both John and Hugh Bikle, along with retired NASA research pilot and noted sailplane pilot Einar Enevoldson, outlined the elder Bikle's achievement, and his immaculately restored Schweizer was on display in a NASA Dryden hangar.
Paul Bikle's sons Hugh (above) and John (below) recalled their father's record altitude flight in detail during the recent historical colloquium at NASA Dryden. A small Luscombe towplane hauled him aloft, and the pair headed north toward China Lake near Ridgecrest. At about 10,000 feet altitude, Bikle released the tow rope and began hunting for an updraft. Instead, he found sinking air. Rather than an altitude record, Bikle began looking for a place to set the sailplane down. At about 2,500 feet altitude above ground, he suddenly flew into an updraft – the beginning of the rotor that would carry him to the lenticular cloud layer and beyond.
Soon Bikle's sailplane was ascending at 1,000 to 2,000 feet per minute from the lower end of California's Owens Valley, and the higher it climbed, the lower the temperature became. Bikle had dressed for sub-zero conditions as best he could: fur-lined gloves from a hardware store, two shirts and two pairs of pants, as well as a light flight suit. He even wore electrically heated socks. But all of this was to no avail. By 36,000 feet altitude, the outside air temperature was -65 degrees F and since there was no way to close the cockpit air vents, the temperature inside was the same. Despite the frigid conditions, Bikle and his sailplane continued to rise steadily until they crested 40,000 feet altitude.
Supplemental oxygen is needed in order to climb to such an altitude, and he had that in a large tank behind his head. The tank, however, dated back to WWII and was never intended for use at this altitude. Still, it functioned. But because he'd loosened the oxygen mask earlier in anticipation of landing while descending to 2,500 feet altitude, Bikle soon found during the sudden and non-stop ascent that he had to hold the oxygen mask to his face with his left hand while steering the sailplane with his right. Before long, the moisture produced by his body and exhaled air caused the inside of the aircraft's canopy to ice over completely, and Bikle had absolutely no outside vision. He could fly only on his instruments and rely on his extraordinary fount of experience to keep him in the ascending wave of air.
At just over 40,000 feet the climb rate dropped off to only 500 feet per minute. Since he'd allowed himself only so much time for the attempt, and that time was slipping away as his climb slowed, Bikle feared he would not reach his goal. He thought about abandoning the effort; he'd already bested his own earlier record of some 36,000 feet. But then the climb rate picked back up to 1,000 feet per minute, so he stayed with the wave, finally cresting at 46,267 feet, a new world altitude record for a sailplane.
After an illustrious career as an aerospace engineer with the U.S. Air Force, Paul Bikle led NASA's Flight Research Center from 1959 to 1971. He was back on the ground at Fox Field not much more than two hours after the adventure began, having radioed ahead to ask John to start the car and turn on the heater so that he could warm himself on his return, his son recalled. While John tied down the Schweizer and took out the barograph for officials to examine, Paul Bikle huddled and shivered in the car, heater blasting on high.
The remarkable record would stand for 25 years. Seeing the aircraft in which Bikle's record was achieved and comparing it to more current, high-performance sailplanes, the record is all the more remarkable. The accomplishment is a testament to the perseverance of a determined man with a deep well of experience and knowledge to call upon, as well as to the tireless support of his family and friends.
By Christian Gelzer
Historian, TYBRIN Corp.,
NASA Dryden Flight Research Center
Paul F. Bikle (1916-1991) was Director of NASA's Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., from 1959 to 1971. He served as president of the Soaring Society of America in 1961 and 1962. He competed in two world soaring championships, served as team captain for a third, and flew in 18 U.S. national soaring championships between 1937 and 1973, finishing in the top five in 10 of them. His Schweizer 1-23E sailplane is on display at the municipal airport in Hollister, Calif.
The simplicity of the cockpit and instruments of Bikle's Schweizer sailplane is obvious in this recent photo. Bikle's absolute altitude record for sailplanes was broken on Feb. 17, 1986 by Robert Harris, who reached 49,009 ft. altitude flying a Grob 102 over California City, Calif. The current record of 50,722 ft was set by the late Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson as part of the Perlan project on Aug. 30, 2006. Bikle's 1961 record for altitude gained – 42,303 ft. – is still unchallenged.