Motor glider rides Himalayan waves

Science team maps threats

January 28, 2014

The summit of Mount Everest, seen from a Stemme S10 motor glider on Jan. 28. Photo courtesy of DLR.

A Stemme S10 motor glider launched from Nepal into the Himalayan heights on Jan. 23, capturing the first of many images that an international science team hopes will save lives.

Mounted below the right wing, a sophisticated camera system developed for extreme environments by the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) captured images that will be used to build a 3-D model of the mountains and snowpack, allowing forecasters to better predict flash floods and landslides that can wipe out entire villages in Nepal.

“We shot first-class, multi-spectral images with a resolution of 20 centimetres (7.9 inches) at an altitude of 6400 metres (21,000 feet) above Khali Gandhaki Valley,” said Jörg Brauchle, who is leading the DLR contingent, in a press release describing the Jan. 23 first flight. “The optical data provided by the camera could not be better for 3D modelling of mountainous regions.”

A Stemme motor glider cruising over the Himalayas. Photo courtesy of DLR.

The photo survey is the first of its kind over the region, and is scheduled to continue for weeks. DLR is supporting the Mountain Wave Project in this effort, a continuation of research flights that have seen gliders climb mountain waves into the lower stratosphere, topping 41,000 feet over the Andes in 2006 for atmospheric research. The Mountain Wave Project holds a variety of glider altitude and distance records, and continues to gather data for atmospheric and physiological research.

The camera pod is derived from systems designed to operate in space. Photo courtesy of DLR.

“Originally, the Mountain Wave Project was founded to research the wave systems in high mountainous regions and their dreaded vortex with horizontal axis of rotation, known as rotors," said MWP founder and glider pilot René Heise, in a press release. “But now we are also researching what goes on in transport from the troposphere to the stratosphere, and are analysing atmospheric turbulence, ultimately aiming to improve weather forecast systems and climate modelling.”

DLR, in its news release, noted the flights are “phenomenally challenging for pilots.” Just getting to Nepal was a challenge in itself, with a pair of Stemme S10s flying for weeks to traverse the Middle East, Pakistan, and India to reach their current operating base in Nepal.

The Stemme S10 research aircraft in Pokhara, Nepal. Photo courtesy of DLR.
Jim Moore

Jim Moore | Online Associate Editor, AOPA

AOPA Online Associate Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot who enjoys competition aerobatics.