The pressurised Perlan 2 glider, which is designed to soar up to 90,000 ft, passed the Armstrong Line, the point in the atmosphere above which an unprotected human’s blood will boil if an aircraft loses pressurisation.
The non-profit Perlan Project is supported by Airbus and a group of other sponsors that includes Weather Extreme, United Technologies and BRS Aerospace. Built in Oregon and based in Minden, Nevada, US, the Perlan 2 glider incorporates a number of innovations to enable its mission:
- a carbon fibre capsule with a high-efficiency, passive cabin pressurisation system that eliminates the need for heavy, power-hungry compressors;
- a closed-loop rebreather system, in which the only oxygen used is what the crew metabolises. It is the lightest and most efficient system for a sealed cabin, and its design has applications for other high-altitude aircraft;
- an onboard ‘wave visualisation system’ that graphically displays areas of rising and sinking air in cockpits. For commercial flights, following lines of rising air would allow faster climbs and save fuel, while also helping aircraft avoid dangerous phenomena such as wind shear and severe downdrafts.
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 ft GPS altitude on 3 September 2017. The 2017 record broke a previous record that was set in 2006, in the unpressurised Perlan 1, by Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and Steve Fossett.
“Innovation is a buzzword in aerospace today, but Perlan truly embodies the kind of bold thinking and creativity that are core Airbus values,” states Tom Enders, Airbus CEO. “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.”
Another first-of-its kind achievement this year for the Perlan Project was the use of a special high-altitude tow plane rather than a conventional glider tow plane. 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 ft, the approximate service ceiling of an Airbus A380.
To soar into 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. This occurs only for a brief period each year in just a few places on earth.
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 Perlan 2 will continue to pursue higher altitude flights and conduct research in the stratosphere as weather and winds permit through the middle of September.