• Airbus’ Perlan Mission II set an altitude world record for piloted gliders.
    Airbus’ Perlan Mission II set an altitude world record for piloted gliders. Airbus
  • The Perlan 2 being towed up in Argentina. Airbus
    The Perlan 2 being towed up in Argentina. Airbus

Airbus’ Perlan Mission II, the world’s first initiative to pilot an engineless aircraft to the edge of space, has risen in the stratosphere to a pressure altitude of over 62,000 feet (60,669 feet GPS altitude) above El Calafate, Argentina. This sets a new gliding altitude world record, pending official validation.

The pressurized Perlan 2 glider, which is designed to soar up to 90,000 feet, passed the Armstrong Line, the point in the atmosphere above which an unprotected human’s blood will boil if an aircraft loses pressurization.

This marks a second glider altitude world record for Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock, the same two Perlan Project pilots who soared the Perlan 2 to 52,221 feet GPS altitude in September last year in the same remote region of Argentine Patagonia. The 2017 record broke a previous record that was set in 2006, in the unpressurized Perlan 1, by Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and Steve Fossett.

The Perlan 2 being towed up in Argentina. Airbus
The Perlan 2 being towed up in Argentina. Airbus

“This is a tremendous moment for all the volunteers and sponsors of Airbus Perlan Mission II who have been so dedicated to making our non-profit aerospace initiative a reality,” Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project, said. “Our victory today, and whatever other milestones we achieve this year, are a testament to a pioneering spirit of exploration that runs through everyone on the project and through the organizations that support us.”

“Innovation is a buzzword in aerospace today, but Perlan truly embodies the kind of bold thinking and creativity that are core Airbus values,” Tom Enders, Airbus CEO, said. “Perlan Project is achieving the seemingly impossible, and our support for this endeavour sends a message to our employees, suppliers and competitors that we will not settle for being anything less than extraordinary.”

During the flight, Perlan 2 was towed to the base of the stratosphere by a Grob Egrett G520 turboprop, a high-altitude reconnaissance plane that was modified for the task earlier this summer. The Egrett released Perlan 2 at around 42,000 feet, the approximate service ceiling of an Airbus A380.

To reach the highest areas of Earth’s atmosphere, Perlan 2 pilots catch a ride on stratospheric mountain waves, a weather phenomenon created when rising air currents behind mountain ranges are significantly strengthened by the polar vortex. The phenomenon occurs only for a brief period each year in just a few places on Earth. The area around El Calafate is one of those rare locations where these rising air currents can reach to 100,000 feet or more. 

The Perlan 2 glider incorporates a number of innovations to enable its mission: a carbon-fibre capsule with a passive cabin pressurization system that eliminates the need for heavy, power-hungry compressors; a unique closed-loop rebreather system, in which the only oxygen used is what the crew metabolizes; and an on-board “wave visualization system” that graphically displays areas of rising and sinking air in cockpits.

Unlike powered research aircraft, Perlan 2 does not affect the temperature or chemistry of the air around it, making it an ideal platform to study the atmosphere. The experiments carried aloft in its instrument bay are yielding new discoveries related to high-altitude flight, weather and climate change.

The program is reminiscent of another Airbus project, the Zephyr high-altitude pseudosatellite. Airbus has selected Wyndham in WA as the location for Zephyr test flights thanks to the largely unrestricted surrounding airspace and reliable weather.

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