FLYING IN A DARKER BLUE – altitude record attempt over Greece

Greece, 13 Feb 2010
At a small grass strip North of Athens, Michael Anastasiou and Kostas Paylidis were waking up at 7am in their trailer home, parked inside the airfield next to the big white trailer that contained the bird of joy.

(Text by Michael Anastasiou)

Looking outside the window, the first signs were there. The forecast seems to be right. Southwesterly winds around 10 kts on the ground – PERFECT!
I run outside to check the view to the west around the mountains. The first rotor clouds were there. No wave bar formed yet. It was still early morning.
Taking out the glider from the trailer, the assembly ritual began. With the forecast to give winds that exceed 90 kts at 15000ft, we had to make sure that everything functioned properly and the bird is 100% ready to fly.

It took about one hour to get the Taurus ready. A long checklist was followed for this flight as some systems of the aircraft were rewired . Both ship’s batteries were charged with a digital charger to make sure they are 100% charged, then placed in their pouch, attached the main wires as well as the solar cell wires coming from the controller. Unfortunately a wiring problem prevented the PDA (running Seeyou mobile) to communicate with the LX1600. Though the PDA was receiving GPS data from the Colibri flight recorder. The Mountain High EDS oxygen system was double checked to make sure it performs flawlessly.

The O2 bottle, an aluminum one with 4 liter capacity, was fresh from recharge at 200 bars. Potable water was loaded in a Camelback and placed between the outer skin of the aircraft and the landing gear bay behind the right side. Energy bars with chocolate taste were loaded. A handheld radio (a must for glider flights in my opinion) was placed at an easy access point in the pouch of the right side. Last item to be loaded was the camera to record the success… or the failure of the flight.

The Pipistrel Taurus was fully ready for the mountain wave flight. Now it was our turn to get ready. Thin layer of clothing (fleece), warm shoes, woolen hats and gloves, sunglasses a must.

I love filling flight plans with fuel endurance of 1 hour and flight time of 6! It puzzles the controllers for a while until they understand that we are a glider.
Around 11 am the surface wind has picked up significantly. There was a cloud layer, a thick wave line starting from 2500m. Perfect!
It took a while to sit properly inside the Taurus and arrange all the technology around our human sensors. Everything had to be fitted tested and tried before departure.
The 2 stroke Rotax 503 fired with the second attempt. Surprisingly smooth and quickly after 1 month in storage. We taxied to Rwy 27 facing the mountains. The clouds were moving fast. Take off was quick and uneventful.

The Taurus was climbing with 2.5m/s. At 2000m the vario pegged to 5m/s. We retracted the engine after few seconds of cooling. With the engine retracted the vario was still pegged at 5m/s +.

The next thing to do with this GOOD climb rate was to call Air Traffic Control of the area. We requested the highest altitude they could give us. The first clearance came: ‘Cleared to climb to Flight Level 130’. FL 130 came surprising quick. We came back with a request for FL 270 adding that this is a non powered flight in a glider. The controller in disbelief of the request placed us on hold to coordinate with Athens approach.

Waiting for the reply we prepared for the BIG climb. The oxygen system was checked and placed to bust slightly the O2 supply as we were using cannulas and not full face masks. Added a Flight Level Nav box in See you mobile, adjusted the ventilation etc.
‘Athens Clears you to climb max altitude FL230. Clearance is valid for 20 min, then leave altitude and descent below FL200.’
Thinking positive that we got a climb, but also disappointed that we could have gone higher, we checked the Flaps are in negative, positioned the Taurus on a good spot of the wave bar and off we went!
Riding the wave in super smooth conditions and climbing occasionally with 7m/s the altitude granted was reached very quick! All the climb was conducted with flaps in negative. True airspeed was increasing rapidly as well as the wind at altitude. At 18,700 the wind was 250 deg and at 180 km/hr. We were in the Jetstream.
FL22,500!
The blue shade of the sky is now darker. The atmosphere clear. We could feel the air was much thinner. The aerodynamic noise despite the 200km/hr True Airspeed, was quieter. The Taurus flew sleek and efficient.

Kostas commented: “Wow, this is my first time that high in a glider. The plane flies and flies like a Jet.”

The sun was crisp and plenty up there. It was washing the cockpit with warmth. But everything else in the shadow was REALLY cold. The outside temperature was  at -20 C. On my side above my arm some window condensation was transformed to ice crystals making some nice patterns.

I start feeling a little bit out of breath. Reached over to the PDA to check some data and all of a sudden I caught myself staring at the PDA without remembering what I wanted to do. Kostas asked me if all is OK. I remember to reply that I forgot what I wanted to do. He quickly spots that one of the two tubes going in my nose is out of position and swiftly helped me to adjust it. With the O2 blood meter, I checked my O2 in the body. Well below normal levels…but returned very quick to the normal 90% + within a minute. Now all systems OK.

Squeezed every second of the ATC time limit and with our Colibri proof and photos in the camera, started the descent. The wave was still very strong. A clear blue wave with 5m/s plus even at 22000 ft we believe we could have gone to 30,000ft.
We decided to catch the downward part of the wave where it gave us a mild 2~3m/s descent rate. Ground speed 350km/hr! Now we are cruising. Heading upwind though we recorder negative ground speeds with a True Airspeed of 180km/hr.

The rest of the flight was performed between FL130 & FL180. Got some turbulence descending lower behind the 2300m mountain, but nothing significant.
After completing 5 turning points we started our descent back to base. Carefully choosing the lee sides of the wave bars we managed to achieve constant rates of descent with good ground speeds. Shallow rates of descent gave also a good temperature stabilization of the aircraft material. From -20C to plus 18C, there is a significant difference. Then of course the Taurus has an all acrylic paint. The extra caution maybe is a habit remain from the gel coat era.

We managed to get of the wave without getting hammered in rotors and the transition to the 30km/hr wind layer was surprisingly smooth.
On the ground we could not believe what we did, until we checked the decoded flight on a netbook. 6700 meters (22500 ft) altitude indeed!
Offloading the aircraft from all the equipment, we found out the potable water bag to be half frozen.
“Now Taurus comes with a refrigerator” we smiled!

The O2 bottle was down to 49bars from 200 fresh.
The Taurus was returned fresh and clean. No cleaning required except the interior that was full from biscuit and food crumbles.
Not even a small bug on the wings and the aircraft was disassembled and placed back into its Cobra trailer home.

Full of memories and with a great experience collected we headed to the local tavern for the ceremonial feast with some good local wine watching the evening lenticulars getting a nice reddish-orange color from the setting sun.

Back to Athens.
Now there are plenty of things to do and prepare for the next attempt. Our wave season ends in one month and the thermal season starts.
The meteorology agency has showed also interest to monitor our flights and contribute to the Mountain Wave Project of Greece.

I would like to thank Kostas for saving this flight, Pipistrel for making such a fantastic flying machine and all my friends for their support.

Cpt Mike Anastasiou

1. February 2013 – Extreme flight: Mike Anastasiou with Taurus to 6927m of altitude

Our Greek distributor and both professional and sport pilot Michail Anastasiou did it again!

After the record-breaking flight with the Taurus on 13. February 2010, when he reached 6700m , this time he and his co-pilot Thanos came very close to the official world altitude record for two-seat UL aircraft (which is 7143m at the moment and belongs to Mr. Mauri).
The entire Pipistrel team congratulates both pilots with heartfelt wishes to take it over the world record the next time! Thank you and good luck!

Michail himself wrote a very nice article about the flight, so we let him tell you the story in his own words:



6,927 METERS ALTITUDE REACHED IN A PIPISTREL TAURUS

1st February 2013
In Greece during winter (Nov to April) we very often encounter a weather pattern where strong southwesterly winds associated with front passage create mountain wave condition over most Greek region. The orographic terrain located almost at perfect angles to the wind direction usually 220 deg. to 260 degrees produces nice wave conditions.
Humidity varies but mainly we get blue wave conditions and most of the times we are capable of climbing higher than the lenticular clouds.
2nd February was a textbook day and we have been watching it closely for almost a week before. Although the wind direction was not the perfect (almost westerly at 270 degrees) we would not miss the chance to stalk whatever wave was out there.

I arrived from the night before. The caravan home at the airfield has been the shelter and the hub of endless talks during nights and non-flying days. With the heater on, I opened the flight sack and started emptying out all the gadgets, gear, cables, etc
One of the beds was totally covered with equipment. It took me some time to rearrange all and place them in a priority status. The main electrical plug looked like an outlet from the movie Matrix… 2 PDAs HX4700 charging, Oudie (backup…can’t find the time to install it properly on the plane, but one day I will…..I promise…), portable radio, back up cellphones, and a bunch of other gadgets necessary for the flight.

Most important for the flight is the oxygen (O2).
I just received the O2D2 from Mountain High upgraded and sealed in an airtight plastic bag. Show time (after the upgrade)! I inserted three AA batteries, pressed the ON button and the unit started flashing, beeping and pulsing its valves with the familiar sound. Nice! System check – ok…
I grabbed the 4 liter aluminum O2 bottle sitting on the shelf, closed the outlet and checked the pressure. 180 bars! Good for many hours of fun…! The carbon 4-liter bottle can be on stand-by. I completed the check of the O2 system by plugging in the Alpine full face masks. Breathing on the ground in the Normal setting released no O2 but the pressure activated valves of the unit were happily releasing.
Few years ago with the cannula masks we ‘suffered’ from lack of oxygen… No, it was not the problem of the mask. In engineering terms is called “RTFM” (Read the f****n manual!) – “Not suitable above 18,000 ft”. I still remember the experience when we had ‘clinically dead’ O2 levels in our blood vessels… and had to start an emergency descent.
But now we are set to go with all the goodies in a… safer way!

I checked latest tephigrams of tomorrow, confirming wind, temperature gradients, had a look at the satellite image and then drove away to the local cult tavern with the BEST EVER beef stakes available on this planet… (Exaggeration, I know… but they feel that way when you are starving…)
A few hours later, full of food like a polar bear, I turned off the lights in my caravan ‘mansion’, dreaming of the wave.

2nd February 2013  – Wave day!
Still half asleep I jumped up and opened the door, looking at the mountains. It was 7 am. No wind on the ground, but the first signs of wave creation were showing up to the west.
I threw some cold water on my face and ran to the hangar to get the help of my friends to open the “toy box”…
In 15 minutes the Taurus was ready for the flight. Keeping it in tip-top shape pays out because I know that every time the box opens the toy is ready to play! It took more than an hour though to have it “combat ready” as we had to install all the gadgets and goodies in a routine, but also in a ceremonial way.

A thorough preflight check of the Taurus revealed no problems or issues. I left the engine extended, checked the volts of the 2 batteries (when the planes sleeps in the trailer, I leave the solar panels do their magic, charging both batteries together as the solar charger controller permits.)
For today, Thanos, a good friend of mine and a glider pilot was joining me on his first ever wave experience.
He is late……I started getting uneasy as another Pipistrel Sinus was already transmitting the first info about the conditions. Then I thought again – we are not limited by daylight, we are limited by the oxygen and the conditions are to get only better during the day… I relaxed and fiddled with my cellphone, downloading visible satellite images and other stuff.
Thanos, my buddy is finally here, bringing breakfast and coffee…
Leave the coffee aside…we drink it when we come back’… But we need the food! I stored it in the vast storage space of the Taurus while calling the local ATC for the flight plan.

The usual story with our ATC, which always makes me laugh:
ATC: Endurance and flight time, sir…
Me: 1 Hour endurance and 6 hours flight time…
ATC: It’s okay, sir… You stated the two info reversed…I will fix the flight plan.
Me: No, madam…I have fuel for one hour and I will fly 6!

It takes a bit more time to explain as they are not exposed to many glider flights. The only thing they regulate are the Mirage 2000 and the F16 of the base.

Putting on all the warm clothes, feeling like an onion, we sat in the Taurus, arranged all tubes, cables, oxymeters and making a nice little cozy nest in which we will be sitting for the next few hours… And most importantly – it had to be a turbulence protected nest! You do not want your portable radio going through the canopy of the glider because you misjudged the descent rate and ended up in the rotors!

The Rotax 503 fired on the second attempt. Normal behavior until the fuel is re-established in the fuel lines. EGT and CHT start rising normally.
We start taxiing, holding the canopy open until we are at threshold. A western low level wind was beneficial as we would depart with no turns. The clouds indicate winds around 30 kts. Not so strong…
• Canopy closed and secured
• Flaps T position
• Final Clear
The Taurus did not need more than 150 meters to lift of. It was a nice day, giving us 3.5 m/s climb rate at full power.
15 minutes later we were approaching 2300 meters as we encountered many leeward updrafts and downdrafts.
Approaching from what it seems to be the second wave bar of the mountain, even at full power we got sink at 6 m/s! We ended up on 1400 meters! After that, we were in the upward stream of the wave bar.

I cooled the engine and stored it with a flick of a switch! Sooo easy…I feel spoiled!
I removed the headsets and start “sniffing” the area… Up to now, not a single jolt! Nice… The Sinus earlier reported hard core conditions! Where? I looked around and the only region where I could see ‘battle zone’ was close to the summit of the mountain. Well, I guess they wanted to be very brave…
The vario beeps at 4 m/s. A smooth, rapid climb… Reaching 4,000 meters I decide to jump from the secondary wave bar to the front one.

Not many clouds or lenticulars in the area. A clear blue wave day with some very high cirrus clouds allowing sunlight to warm the huge cockpit of the Taurus.
With flaps negative and close to True Air Speed Vne we attempt the jump. Although no turbulence encountered, the sink rate took a big toll on our altitude. Lost more than 2,000 meters in a mere 14 kilometer distance traveled. Wind at 80km/h headwind.
But the jump was worth it. Clean ascend with the vario pegged to 6.5 m/s. I had to reduce the volume of the vario as it became annoying. No beep beep…but a constant trtrtrtrtr…….
Traveling back and forth on the first wave bar the altimeter was winding aggressively upwards.
When passing 4,500 meters mark, we went to oxygen. One by one, we put on our face masks and turned the unit on. The oxymeter jumped from 89% O2 to 97%. System is fine and we get the O2 we need.

Soon we reach the 6,000 meters mark. The vario is showing 3 m/s. I start to dislike it… Is it broken? The winds are constant at 85 km/hr. Using the “see-you” history we locate the sweet spot of the wave and return to it. It gave us a few extra meters….
Finally, the Taurus is sitting at 6,841 meters or 23,000 feet!

Smooth flight and much less aerodynamic noise in the cockpit as the air density is lesser. Our breathing condensation formed some nice ice crystals on the top and the side of the canopy. Temperature: -16°C. The airliners cruising above at FL300 plus look so close now!

The vario is almost at zero but not negative. We have limited time up there as ATC has restricted us on altitude. Pulling the mask off made a call to ATC for operations normal. The oximeter, permanent on my finger is showing a healthy blood stream full of O2… 98%!
It’s time to use the altitude for some cross- country kilometers. Heading south-eastbound the ground speed was showing more than 270km/hr. Nice! But we will be crawling on the way back… Who cares! We just achieved the new height mark for the Taurus!
The rest is just fun!

The high cirrus clouds were getting denser. The front was approaching from the southwest. Maintaining an average of 5,000 meters we went for a 5 turning point pattern concentrating in a higher speed cruising leaving the flaps at negative all the time.
My friend spots an Olympic Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop at 2 o’clock few miles from us and about thousand feet high. It looked so close, but air traffic control has been aware!
Do you think they can see us?

Turning on the final point with the day giving ample lift if you knew where to get it, we went for the final glide back to our base.
A smooth touch-down with half speed brakes and the Taurus came to a stop in front of the hangar.
Opening the canopy the first thing to do was to call the ATC and close the flight plan, thanking them for their great support and cooperation.
We shook hands with each other and unfolded our bodies, crawling out of the cockpit…. The air on the ground felt and smelled almost like spring!
Fellow glider and other pilots approached to help us push the Taurus in the hangar. Their first question was: How HIGH!!!???? With a humble voice, I whispered the number…
I let my friend to clean the glider – with almost nothing to clean as no bugs will stick to it at 23,000 ft and at -16 Celsius. I ran to fetch my computer to analyze the flight:
The final altitude reached was 6,927 meters!

I ran back to the glider and announced the analysis… It happily cost me a dinner in the tavern!
Preparing the glider for the next day with a forecast of jetstream winds, we continued the hangar talk. The heavy doors of the hangar closed at dusk and we headed for the ceremonial grilled steaks.
2nd of February of 2013 was a really good day for us!

The next day started with wind gusts of more than 50 kts on the ground. The approaching front de-stabilized the upper atmosphere and there was no wave formation. Rotor clouds were everywhere with high humidity. ‘ It must be hell up there today.’ The forecast was giving 100 kts at 3,000 meters. Analyzing the weather for about 3 hours we ended up having a long coffee session and airplane talk.

It took further 20 minutes later to place the Taurus in its trailer. Until next time…
Keep your gadgets always ready and charged!

Michail Anastasiou
Kopaida Airfield
Athens, Greece

PS 1: I heard that a Sinus reached 6500 meters on 2nd of February! The pilots were limited by the O2 system they had… otherwise, who knows???

PS 2: Thanos – the other pilot – said to me at some point during the flight: “This is wave flying? Is so easy and smooth! I can’t believe it. I hear horror stories.” I replied: “Well, what you saw today was accumulated experience. But believe me, in order to get to the experience level required, you have to be in the horror stories you heard. To be in them at least once!

Do not miss the story about Taurus’ greatest success:

2014 – Taurus touched the sky – flying at 9,214 meters (30,229 feet)

Congratulations to all the pilots and thank you for sharing your stories with us!

Another proof confirming once again that Taurus is a real cross-country sailplane;

The Utah State Record Keeper approved 3 record claims: Free Out and Return, Free 3-Turnpoint, and Free Triangle Distance in the Multiplace Motorglider Category for flights last year in a Pipistrel Taurus. Pilots were Mr. Steve Dee and Dr. Chris Erickson.

Results table from the page http://www.ssa.org