Einar Enevoldson Likes to Fly Gliders High

By Scott Spangler on October 29th, 2013

High as in altitude. Wandering through the science section of the New York Times in the dying days of October, “A Quiet Trip to the Ozone Hole” caught my attention. It’s about the Perlan Project, which is building a pressurized glider that will ride the standing wave created by the Andes Mountains to 60,000 feet.

Riding the top of the altitude-sapped wave, the plan is to catch the polar vortex, “circulating winds that act like a giant cyclone during the austral winter, delivering a strong uplift.” That should carry the glider, whose wings span 84 feet, to 90,000 feet, where it can study the ozone hole, and set a new altitude record while doing it.

Learning about this private project and existence of the “polar vortex” drove my airplane geek meter into the red. But it didn’t come close to meeting (in print and through the accompanying videos) the project’s chairman, Einar Enevoldson. He started his aviation career by learning to fly gliders in 1947, the year Chuck Yeager, broke the sound barrier.

An Air Force pilot doing an exchange tour with the Royal Air Force, he attended the Empire Test Pilot’s School in Farnborough, England. He went on to fly some truly remarkable aircraft between 1968 and 1986 as a NASA research pilot at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. Among them were the YF-12 (predecessor of the SR-71), the X-24 lifting body, and the funky scissor-wing AD-1 that made its last eight flights in 1982 at EAA Oshkosh.

As I read, my right brain screamed, Why have you never before heard about Einar Enevoldson? My logical left brain replied with another question: Other than the few who are face-to-face friends, how many mass-market test pilots can you name, and how many of them are the World War II-era peers of Yeager?

Let’s see, there Lockheed’s Tony LeVier and Grumman’s Corky Meyer. Nope. World War II. Scott Crossfield? Yes, he’s another NASA research pilot. He flew the X-15 and maybe was the last test pilot to make the front pages of local newspapers, said my left brain. That leaves Mike Melville, who took Space Ship One beyond Earth’s atmosphere. True enough. But without mentioning his accomplishment, would the average person know—or remember—his name?

No, probably not. And in this context, I realized that I’d probably heard Einar’s name numerous times, but never in the speed of sound or civilian space flight context.

Let’s try another name: Steve Fossett. That’s easy. He was the first to circumnavigate the globe—solo—in a balloon and an airplane. And just before he died, in 2006 he set an altitude record of 50,727 feet in a glider, the Perlan I, riding the wave over the Andes with his copilot … Einar Enevoldson.

Logically, I understand why most people don’t know the names of pioneering test pilots and their projects. And I can kind of understand why. Most pilots wouldn’t know Enevoldson’s  name because they fly with power and look at gliders with askance; most ask why, and a handful, myself included, behold them with envy. Despite all that he has accomplished in his test flying, Enevoldson is clearly a never-say-die glider guy whose passion equals that of William Hawley Bowlus, Paul Bikle, and Paul MacCready.

Construction of the two-seat pressurized Perlan II is well underway, and it’s interesting that it looks like Space Ship One, a smooth phallic pressure vessel dotted with oval windows that balance structural integrity with field of view. The project’s goal is to fly in 2015, and there’s plenty to learn about, such as coffin corner, where stall speed and redline speed are close enough at high altitude to shake hands. It is a problem that dawned with the jet age. But gliders? –Scott Spangler, Editor

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2 Responses to “Einar Enevoldson Likes to Fly Gliders High”

  1. gregg reynolds Says:

    Einar,

    A voice from the past ala the Smirnoff Transcontinental Sailplane Derby…just wanted to say hello and wish you well with the 90K project.

    Gregg Reynolds
    KOLM

  2. Norman Says:

    <>

    Strange isn’t it, so many of us start their flying career in a glider only to learn later that many within our notoriously clannish profession regard gliding as a fringe activity rather than a superb training ground.
    There are few aeronautical experiences so visceral in aviation as a good cloud climb and a long cross country that ends in a field somewhere several hundred miles from home. Luftwaffe saw the value of the glider and a learning platform, why can’t we?
    Great story, fantastic achievement.

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