Airbus Perlan Project

Airbus Perlan Project – Congratulations on your third world record!

Jennifer Weitbrecht
4 pictures
6 minutes

On 2nd September 2018, the Airbus Perlan Project team celebrated their third world record in what was a successful week. We at WingMag would like to congratulate the team and their sponsors! Particularly their main sponsor, Airbus, as they are a customer of our WingMag sponsor, SFS. We wish you good luck for the rest of the project and will be following it with great excitement!

The world record from 2nd September 2018

Location:: El Calafate in Argentina. The pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner used a so-called “step technique” to gradually climb higher and higher into the cobalt blue sky in the Perlan II glider and to hover high above the clouds. They glided to a record height for gliders of just under 23,203 metres on a mountain wave in the Andes. They, therefore, trumped the record set by the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, of 22,475-odd metres. The altitude record is still held by the SR-71 Blackbird at 25,929 metres, but this altitude was achieved during parabolic flight, rather than level flight. However, if the Perlan Project’s plan takes off, this record will soon be history, too.

The pilots for the record flight and the altimetry for the Perlan II’s flight © Perlan Project

How is it possible for a glider to reach such altitudes?

The Perlan II’s records are even more impressive when you consider that the previous records were all held by motorised aircraft. The Perlan II, however, is surviving without an engine. It uses a very special weather phenomenon which only occurs for a short time each year in very few locations. To create this, the rising air currents in the Andean Mountains are intensified by polar vortices – pockets of cold air above the Arctic and Antarctic. Resultantly, the air currents can climb up to 30 kilometres in altitude. It is only due to these polar vortices that it is at all possible to glide to such unimaginable heights.

Phase One – Reaching unexpected heights in a series aircraft

Did you happen to know that Perlan I was a regular series aircraft? Using this glider, the fact that the highest mountain waves could provide gliders with the gateway to the edge of space was able to be proven in the first phase. We have already covered exciting facts, mysteries and scandals surrounding the Perlan Project’s first phase here (Perlan I), here (People, background and mysteries) and here (Steve Fossett – Adventurer).

Phase Two – higher than all previous level flights

As could already be proven in the first phase, the highest mountain waves could open the gateway to the edge of space for gliders. The project is now in Phase Two. The goal of this phase is to develop a pressurised glider which can glide to altitudes of up to 27,432 metres. To put this into perspective, gliders undertaking cross-country flights usually operate at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,000 meters, while passenger aircraft have a regular flying altitude of 10,000 to 15,000 metres.

The mission’s goal – an altitude of around 30 kilometres

The ultimate goal, the goal for the third phase, goes even further: The researchers want to use a glider to study the stratosphere at altitudes of around 30 kilometres. This is the second layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. Perlan II is not yet in a position to be able to reach such heights. A third glider, which should be designed for even greater speeds than the 650 kilometres per hour (400 mph) currently achieved by Perlan II, will be built for this extreme undertaking. The glider has to be able to glide at an air density of less than three percent of that at sea level as well as to withstand temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius without putting the crew in danger – conditions similar to those on the surface of Mars.

What lies behind the Perlan Project?

The world records already set are not the mission’s underlying goal but simply additional achievements along the way. A considerable research interest in the field of climate research and climate change lies behind the project.

As the Perlan glider does not produce any emissions itself, it should be able to be used to provide precise measurements at extreme altitudes in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Many assumptions about this region to date have been largely based on conjecture and have, as yet, only been partially researched. For example, there are special wind currents in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, such as the jetstream, polar vortices and the so-called mountain waves, namely up winds over mountains.

The enormous mountain waves appear to facilitate the creation of the hole in the ozone layer and changes to the global climate model. It is hoped that the research findings can be used to fight climate change and the hole in the ozone layer and to learn how the enormous stratospheric mountain waves influence our planet’s weather.

However, it is not just the science which should lead to new information, inspiring young people to take up careers in science and engineering is also a desired outcome. You can find out more on the Perlan Project’s scientific background here.

The excitement continues over the next few weeks

The flight season for the Perlan Project team still has a few more weeks to go before the stratospheric mountain waves in the southern hemisphere die down. The number of further flights will be determined by the southern hemisphere’s winter weather, amongst other things.

Why is Airbus sponsoring the Perlan Project?

The CEO of Airbus, Tom Enders, appreciated the new record but still stressed that the real reward lay in expanding our own knowledge and skills through researching the atmosphere and its changes.

Enders stressed that researching natural sources of lift, options for avoiding turbulence and knowledge on efficient flight at extreme altitudes can ultimately pave the way to Mars research with the help of wing-borne aircraft. “Every Perlan flight is an investment in our future,” explains Enders.

The Airbus group is most well-known for its passenger aircraft, however it also researches pilotless aircraft, such as Zephyr, a solar-electric powered drone-satellite hybrid. A robotic rover vehicle, which goes by the name of ExoMars, has also already been developed to research the surface of Mars.

Anyone can follow the Perlan Project – in real time!

You can keep up-to-date by following the project on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

More on the Airbus Perlan Project

For those who would like to hear more about the Perlan Project, we recommend visiting the official Perlan Project website:

The Airbus Perlan Project on YouTube

Short and succinct commentary on the Perlan Project

Be there in the cockpit

What the Airbus Group has to say on the Perlan Project and its pursued goals

Glider flight as seen from the rearview camera

Images ©Perlan Project

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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