On Wednesday in Redmond, Oregon, Airbus Group’s Perlan 2 sailplane made its first flight. Flown by chief pilot Jim Payne and team pilot and project manager Morgan Sandercock, and attached to a towplane, it took off from Redmond Municipal Airport. It was released by the towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet. During the flight, the pilots performed various control system checks on the aircraft.
Sailplane pilot and NASA test pilot Einar Enevoldson conceived the project in 1992, after seeing images of stratospheric mountain waves in Sweden. He then spent the following six years researching mountain waves, which are spawned by strong winds blowing over the tops of high mountain ranges. In 1998, Meteorologist Elizabeth Austin partnered with Enevoldson, and discovered that the Polar Vortex, and one of its principal components, the stratospheric polar night jet, existing only in winter, provided the high speed wind in the stratosphere that powered incredibly high waves.
Famed experimental pilot Steve Fossett joined the project in 1999. At NASA’s request, the U.S. Air Force loaned pressure suits to Enevoldson and Fossett. A German-made, two-seat Glaser-Dirks DG-500M glider was chosen as the basis for the Perlan flyer. It was built as a motorized glider, but the Perlan team removed the engine. Fossett and Enevoldson flew the glider in the Patagonia region of Argentina to a record altitude of 50,727 feet in 2006. This led Fossett to pledge funding for Phase 2, but he died in a 2007 plane crash into mountainous terrain, 9 miles from Mammoth Lakes, California. Project funding was halted, and so was the Perlan project.
At EAA Airventure 2014 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders announced the Airbus partnership with ‘Perlan Mission II.’ I was at the press conference for the announcement, where Enders said, “Our company is built on the shoulders of aviation pioneers who pushed boundaries in their own times – people who flew higher, farther, faster. Hence,when we learned of the Perlan Project and its quest to soar to record heights, we knew we needed to find a way to be a part of it. Partnering with the Perlan team is consistent with our core values of furthering innovation in aerospace and of inspiring the next generation of designers, manufacturers and aviators.” Phase 2 would involve soaring to the edge of space, at 90,000 feet in order to explore climate change, learn more about weather forecasting, the Ozone layer, and the future of Martian space exploration.
Perlan 1 is now on display at the Museum of Flight, in Seattle. For Perlan 2, a two-seat pressurized glider by Windward Performance is the research aircraft. Made of composites, its 83-foot wingspan will allow it to soar to even higher altitude, and with air pressure less than 2% of seal level, the glider will fly at nearly half the speed of sound. Although the cabin will be pressurized, the pilots will wear pressure suits, in case of an emergency. It is also equipped with a ballistic parachute system. Prior to Wednesday’s flight, Perlan 2 received its airworthiness certificate from the FAA on September 4th.
Perlan 2 will next be flown in Nevada, this December, after receiving its cabin pressurization. El Calafate, Argentina is the selected location where the exploratory flights will be performed, slated for the Southern Hemisphere winter of 2016, to take advantage of the Polar Vortex and stratospheric polar night jet. The 90,000-foot goal altitude, once achieved, will be a record for an airplane, surpassing the SR-71 Blackbird which holds the current record of 85,069 feet. By 2019, the project aims to move on to Phase 3, adopting new transonic wings and achieving an altitude of 100,000 feet.