Test pilots at Grob-Werke GmbH & Company KG in Germany first flew the Grob 102 Standard Astir III late in 1980. The Standard Astir III is one of several models that the Grob company designed specifically to conform to the international Standard Class category of competitive sailplanes adopted in 1958. On February 17, 1986, Robert Harris flew this Grob 102 Standard Astir III and set a world altitude record of 14,899 m (49,009 ft).
On June 4, 1997, Robert Harris and his wife, Susan Rothermund, donated the Grob 102 to the National Air and Space Museum.
Test pilots at Grob-Werke GmbH & Company KG in Germany first flew the Grob 102 Standard Astir III late in 1980. The Standard Astir III is one of several models that Grob has designed specifically to conform to the international Standard Class category of competitive sailplanes adopted in 1958. The community of European glider pilots devised this category to encourage sailplane manufacturers and sport pilots to build and fly relatively inexpensive sailplanes. The glider had also to appeal to glider flying clubs and handle easily in the air. Those who created the class also hoped to give pilots from smaller countries a venue in which they could compete fairly with pilots from larger, wealthier countries. A Standard Class sailplane must have a 15-m (49.2-foot) wingspan, fixed landing gear, and no flaps. For years, many pilots and competition officials disputed the Standard Class definition and the United States did not recognize it until 1969.
Pilots liked the large roomy cockpit on the Standard Astir III. They could fly the sailplane at its best glide ratio, 38:1, at a speed of 105 km/h (65 mph), and then accelerate to the maximum speed, 250 km/h (155 mph), or slow to the stall speed, 60 km/h (38 mph).
In 1978, Robert Harris first rode a sailplane into the sky and the experience enthralled him. Harris set about breaking the world glider altitude record after he discovered that no one had bested the mark that Paul Bickle had set on February 21, 1961, when he reached 14,065 m (46,267 ft).
To prepare for an attempt at the record, Harris spent five years working his way ever higher. First, he soared to 6,080 m (20,000 ft) and then 10,640 m (35,000 ft). Twice he topped 11,552 m (38,000 ft) and during the spring of 1985, he reached 12,160 m (40,000 ft). Harris made all of these flights after taking off from an airport near the town of Independence in the Owens Valley region of central California and soaring above the mighty Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shortly before 1 p.m. on February 17, 1986, a tow plane hauled Harris and the Grob 102 Standard Astir III aloft. He unhooked the towline and soon found weak lift that he worked to an altitude of 10,640 m (35,000 ft). Strong lift then pushed the glider up at 182-243 m (600-800 ft) per minute. By the time he had reached 11,552 m (38,000 ft), frost completely covered the canopy and Harris began to fly solely by reference to his instruments. At 12,768 m (42,000 ft), his eyes began to water but the teardrops froze and immediately formed ice cobwebs. Even five layers of clothing could not insulate him from temperatures that dropped to minus 65-70 degrees F (-50 degrees Centigrade) inside the cockpit. A failing oxygen system forced him to stop his record climb at 14,899 m (49,009 ft) and he returned triumphantly to earth using backup oxygen.
Many applauded Harris's achievement but the Federal Aviation Administration criticized the pilot for flying in controlled airspace without permission. On June 4, 1997, Robert Harris and his wife, Susan Rothermund, donated their Standard Astir III to the National Air and Space Museum.