The Witness

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

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

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?

Greenfield: It’s such an outstanding performance that it’s still on the books—ever since October 22, 1938. 

A&S: Tell me about a record attempt you witnessed.

Greenfield: I’ve seen a lot. You may have read about one that was set last year. It was by Arnold Ebneter, and he flew from Payne Field in Everett, Washington, nonstop to Fredericksburg, Virginia. I was observer on the landing end of that flight. He was flying a homebuilt of his own design. And he had been working on the design for literally decades, and he finally made it. He’s 82 years old. It was 2,327 miles; it was an 18 hour and 25 minute flight. I walked up to him as he was getting out of the airplane, and the first thing he said was, “I’m never doing that again.” And he won’t have to for a while. He broke a record that was set in 1984 [by American Frank Hertzler in a Vari-Eze], so the record had been on the books for a long time. And it was in [class] C1A, which is from 661 to 1,102 pounds [the longest nonstop flight in a small aircraft, less than 500 kilograms]. That was on July 26, 2010. He had been attempting this for four or five years, until he finally got the right weather for it. So that was a long time coming. He was waiting for the longest day, because he wanted to do it in the summertime when the daylight hours were the longest. 

A&S: Do a lot of people try and break multiple records, or are they like this man, who tried multiple times to break a single record?

Greenfield: I think this one was a little unusual for someone to have gone after it so many times. I don’t think he actually launched any of the other years. I think that a lot of people, once they’ve done it, it kind of gets in their blood. They make one record attempt, and then they really take a liking to it, and start looking for other records to go after. 

A&S: Since you’re in charge of the records, do you get first dibs on witnessing attempts?

Greenfield: I can’t say yes to that, because I’d have 10 other people who would be upset if I did! When we assign the observer we try to find someone with expertise in that particular area, and also we want to make sure that the observer is independent and doesn’t have an interest in the record that’s being attempted. 

A&S: About the city-to-city records: Why do you think they’re so popular? Is it an easier record to break?

Greenfield: I think, generally speaking, it can be done over a normal, fairly routine flight with a little extra planning, and probably that’s the reason. 

A&S: What sort of time commitment is it? When you went to witness the Fredericksburg flight, how long did that take?

Greenfield: It varies considerably depending on the attempt. That particular one was a half-day commitment because it was so close, just down the road. Other ones can be several days, maybe even a week. Just depending on the type of record attempt. When the University of Maryland was trying for the human-powered helicopter flights, they made attempts over several days. 

A&S: Did they make the record?

Greenfield: The first claim we approved was set back in May. It was approved, and that’s now being approved by [parent organization] Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Then they made, in July, a second attempt, and made a claim, and we have not yet approved it. We’re still reviewing it, so it’s in process. 

A&S: What goes into the reviewing process?

Greenfield: This particular one is a bit different, simply because we don’t have much activity in that area. This was recorded with video cameras. 

A&S: So it takes as long to review it as it did to set the record?

Greenfield: In this case, yeah, it will take a bit longer, going through those records. This one is a little unusual in that regard. Luckily I didn’t have to watch 18 hour and 25 minute flight for Mr. Ebneter.

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