Perlan I

Perlan Project – Perlan I – How it all began

Jennifer Weitbrecht
2 pictures
6 minutes

The Airbus Perlan Project is already nearing the end of its second phase. We have already covered Mission 2’s amazing successes in another article. But what exactly happened during Mission 1, what were its research goals and which specific glider made it possible to reach previously unimaginable heights?

The Perlan Project’s origins

Gliders have been travelling on mountain waves since 1932. This kind of gliding can be seen as being similar to surfing on the sea. However, the aircraft is gliding inside the wave rather than on the surface of the wave.

Between 1992 and 1998, the Perlan founder and NASA test pilot, Einar Enevoldson, collected evidence on a previously unknown weather phenomenon: giant stratospheric mountain waves. In winter, these mountain waves spread to the troposphere and even deep into the stratosphere from regions close to the poles. They arise in a similar way to large sea waves. They are caused by strong winds moving over the peaks of high mountain ranges, such as the Andes. The resistance created by the mountains sends the waves of air upwards towards outer space.

As an experienced pilot, it soon became clear to Enevoldson that it had to be possible for a glider to ride these waves right up to almost the edge of space. In order to prove this, he sprang into action and founded the Perlan Project in 1999. It was named after the pearlescent clouds in Scandinavia.

Dr. Elizabeth Austin joins in

The meteorologist Dr. Elizabeth Austin teamed up with Enevoldson as early as 1998. However, her theory went a step further. She wanted to prove that the stratospheric polar-night jet and the polar vortices are the factors which maintain the mountain waves and, moreover, which lead to the wave being able to reach heights of up to 39,624 metres. You can find more information on Dr. Elizabeth Austin in another article.

Perlan Project Mission 1 – Research goals

The Perlan Project’s Mission 1 was primarily supposed to answer three questions:

1. It was already clear when the project began that the conditions required for stratospheric mountain waves only exist at very high latitudes, either in the northern or southern hemispheres. Whether these mountain waves even exist at all and where the right conditions can be found had to be determined to start with. Until then known wave systems only reached as high as the tropopause at the most.

2. Up until then, no-one had dared to reach heights like these in a glider. And it was still not clear whether it was even possible. Whether a glider can switch from the lower waves found in the surface wind to the higher waves which interact with the polar vortex had to first be investigated. The crossover takes place at an altitude of approximately 15,240 metres – a region in which no glider had previously flown.

3. At an altitude of 27,432 metres the conditions are similar to those on Mars. The glider and its crew are exposed to extremely low air pressure, extremely low air density and temperatures of around minus 56.67 degrees Celsius. The first mission’s third goal was to therefore study the systems required to keep the crew alive at these altitudes and under these conditions.

The Perlan I – A completely normal glider

Surprisingly, the glider for Mission 1 was not a special aircraft. It was a modified DG505m. Namely, a series aircraft which was built by DG Flugzeugbau GmbH in Bruchsal, Germany. It originally used a two-stroke engine to start automatically. To save weight (amongst other things), the engine was replaced with oxygen tanks, scientific instruments and non-rechargeable batteries, so that the radio, oxygen regulator and flight instruments could be supplied with electricity. The Perlan had to be towed to the required altitude by a conventional tug aircraft for launching.

The wide cockpit had been approved for heavy loads but was still rather small for the pilots, Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson. As the aircraft did not have a pressurised cabin, they both wore spacesuits borrowed from NASA, which took up a lot of space.

Technical information about Perlan I

Cabin pressureNo pressurised cabin
Empty weight390.09 kg
Overall weight630.04 kg
Wingspan17.98 m
Wing surface16.63 m2
Aspect ratio19.52
Maximum speed270.37 km/h (168 mph)
Wing load38.08 kg / m2

Perlan I’s apparatus

To reach an altitude of 15,240 metres and to ensure the crew’s safety, there were specific requirements regarding apparatus. The following items were on board:

Fossett and Enevoldson break the altitude record

Steve Fossett – adventurer, sailor and record-breaking pilot – joined the project in 1999. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world in a hot air balloon on their own and without stopping. Fossett became a sponsor and a Perlan I pilot.

On 30th August 2006, Fossett and Enevoldson flew the Perlan I to a phenomenal height of 15,460 metres. In doing so, they broke the previous glider record by a mere 507 metres. This altitude record proved the existence of stratospheric waves in an impressive way.

They should really have flown even higher! However, they developed problems with their high-altitude suits. These inflated so much in the cabin that the pilots could no longer move enough to navigate the aircraft safely. They therefore decided to return to the ground and to develop a special glider with a pressurised cabin for the project’s future progress. Developing this next aircraft – the Perlan II – marked the start of Mission II.

Mysteries and scandals surrounding the Perlan Project

There are fascinating mysteries and scandals regarding people, aircraft and events which surround the Perlan Project. These include some mysteries concerning the project’s supporter and pilot, Steve Fossett. How did his unexpected crash during a routine flight on 3rd September 2007 happen and what has been discovered since then? In this article about the people and background, we provide you with the big picture.

Image material © Perlan Project / Cover image – Pixabay qimono

by Jennifer Weitbrecht

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