To say the Perlan 2 is an out-of-this-world glider plane is no exaggeration: it aims to be the first of its kind to soar to the edge of space. After completing the initial test flight, the Airbus Perlan Mission II demonstrates it's ready to boldly go where no one has gone before.
After the successful first flight of Perlan 2, Jim Payne, Chief Pilot of Airbus Perlan Mission II, talks about his preparations for the record flight to 90,000 feet (27.4 km) in 2016 and his expectations when reaching the altitude.
Jim, congratulations on the first flight! How was it?
It was fantastic – the highlight of my soaring career! It was an absolutely beautiful day in Oregon. The sky was blue and there were no winds. Perlan 2 performed as it should with no surprises. That’s what you want during a first flight because flying a new airplane is like getting on a horse for the first time: You never know if it’s going to buck.
What are the next steps for you and the team leading up to the record flight over the Andes in 2016?
We have some systems to install into the aircraft and some ground tests to complete. In December, we expect to start envelope expansion. That means we want to fly higher and faster – gradually increasing the altitude. During these tests, which we are going to perform in Nevada, we expect to reach an altitude of 40,000 feet.
How are you preparing physically and mentally for the record flight?
Over the past few years, I have done many cross-country flights where we flew for more than 15 hours over distances up to 2,900 km. Furthermore, you have to learn how to operate the systems and safety equipment. But physically, you don’t need any special training because we have the pressurised cabin with an oxygen system.
You have flown many aircraft in different types of missions. What is special about Perlan 2?
Most of all, Perlan 2 gives us the capability to fly where no one has flown before. Therefore, there are two things that are most different compared to other aircraft: the windows are very small due to the highly pressurised cabin and the airfoil is optimised for high altitude, which means that at low altitudes, Perlan will not perform as well as a typical open class sailplane even if it has the same wingspan. It will be at 60,000 feet that we will have the best performance.
How will you deal with the temperatures of -60°C?
The carbon-fibre-sandwich construction will provide good insulation. But we do not know for sure, and we will only learn that once we start the altitude tests. In any case there is enough capacity in the battery to plug in electric socks and maybe electric underwear. And if that is not enough, I will take a lot of woollen socks with me.
What kind of view do you expect from 90,000 feet?
As you go above 50,000 feet, the sky turns black and then you can see the stars. So I expect to have this wonderful vista. There should also be some interesting cloud formations to look down on.
If the record flight succeeds, what would be your next challenge?
Einar Enevoldson, founder of the Perlan Project, originally wanted to go to 100,000 feet, but when he started the engineering he realised that the difference between 90,000 and 100,000 feet makes the aircraft much more complicated. What we will learn going to 90,000 feet will help designing an aircraft that could fly up to 100,000. That would mean I am not only soaring to the edge of space but literally in space. Sounds like a challenge!
Flying a new airplane is like getting on a horse for the first time: You never know if it's going to buck.
As a holder of the Lilienthal Gliding Medal what sort of influence have pioneers of flight like Otto Lilienthal had in your life?
The passion is something I was born with. Of course I observe how the pioneers accomplished what they did and it is motivating. It involves inspiration and a lot of work. They persevered through problems and difficulties and achieved amazing things. It has truly inspired me!
Relive the highlights of Perlan's first flight!
Perlan 2 first flight
The Perlan 2 glider plane is essentially a spacecraft with an 84-foot wingspan, engineered to fly in conditions that mirror the surface of Mars. But before it can reach its record-breaking goal of soaring to 90,000 ft (27.4 km) in July 2016, the Perlan Project team has first made few test runs much closer to Earth. These trials began on 23 September 2015 with Perlan 2 first ever test flight, which took place in Redmon, Oregon.
Where no one has gone before
The Airbus Perlan Mission II is a boundary-pushing endeavour in its design, ambitions and methodology. This purpose-built glider will fly in a near vacuum at less than 2% of normal air density, utilising a pressurised cabin – up until now unnecessary in the sport – along with the life-support systems of a spacecraft.
Perlan 2 not only will break aviation records by flying to over 27 km, but also serve as a vehicle to test meteorological phenomena and inspire students’ interest in aerospace.
Everything we were doing until now, as exciting and intense as it was, has been preparation. You can gauge the project’s progress by the people who are involved: initially, I was really active in helping to get the plane built. Now Jim Payne, our chief pilot is stepping forward into his role. It feels much more real now that we’re flying.
The Perlan 2 has a modular bay for scientific instrumentation, which will collect data from uncharted levels of the Earth’s atmosphere. And to reach their altitude goal, the Perlan team aims to exploit a unique combination of weather phenomena that, when aligned, can send its pilots straight up on an elevator through the stratosphere.
We have a great airplane now. We still have a lot of work to do, completing and installing the systems, systems checkout and shakedown, and a lot of training for the ground and flight crews. There will be just a few good weather events for us to fly high in Patagonia so we must be completely ready for each one. We will be very busy until we leave for El Calafate.
Soaring to 27 kilometres
The team will continue to test in Oregon, and then will move to Minden, Nevada (near Lake Tahoe) in December 2015 to do a series of higher altitude trials. The Sierra Nevada range better mimics the conditions of their final destination in 2016: El Calafate, Argentina, at the base of the Andes mountains, where the Perlan Project will aim for the edge of space.
Airbus Perlan Mission II Press kit
Perlan 2: stats & specs
Wingspan: 84 ft (25.6 m)
With more wing area than a conventional sailplane, the Perlan 2 can function better in the thin air of the stratosphere than in lower altitudes.
Cabin pressure: 8.5 psi
The cabin atmosphere is equal to flight at about 14,000 feet. Instead of a traditional glider’s glass dome, the pressurised Perlan 2 cabin has fitted windows.
Pilots from around the globe will fly the Perlan 2, including former Air Force and NASA test pilots, and Dennis Tito, the first civilian to travel to the International Space Station.
Its true flight speed at 90,000 ft will be 350 knots (403 mph or 648 km/h).
Gross Weight: 1800 lbs
(818 kg) Though it weighs the same as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, the Perlan 2 is very light for the structural strength required for stratospheric flight.
Gross Weight: 1800 lbs
818 kg) Though it weighs the same as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, the Perlan 2 is very light for the structural strength required for stratospheric flight.
Altitude goal: 90,000 ft.
(27.4 km) and beyond! This would break the current 50,720 ft (15.5 km) altitude record for an engineless plane, set by the Perlan 1 in 2006.
Inside the engineless glider
Because it carries pilots into a risky new realm, the Perlan 2 has specialised equipment onboard. This includes an oxygen re-breather system for life support that borrows its technology from scuba gear, and two parachutes to allow for emergency descents if needed.
Perlan 2 also carries scientific instrumentation. The glider will fly through the troposphere on its way to the stratosphere, and will run experiments on heat, mass and chemical exchange between these layers to help shed more light on climate change.
The Perlan Project will also measure the amount of chlorine-based chemicals and ozone in the stratosphere to further scientists’ understanding of the ozone hole.
The Perlan Project not only aims to push the frontiers of flight, it also hopes to shed more light on Earth’s atmosphere and inspire future generations’ interest in aerospace careers.
Perlan 2: inspiring through science
“We’re charting unknown territory—that’s every scientist’s dream,” says Chief Meteorologist Dr. Elizabeth Austin. It’s with Austin’s expertise that the perfect brew of climactic conditions has been determined to help launch the Perlan II up into the stratosphere. Very little is known about the stratosphere because there have been no aircraft that can remain at level flight at altitude long enough to gather data.
As the glider flies toward its goal of 90,000 ft, atmospheric science experiments and research on ozone depletion and climate change can be conducted.
Onboard flight and weather sensors are planned for the Perlan 2, and work has also begun to solicit partner high schools and universities to submit cube-sat experiment proposals to be carried onboard the craft. Students may measure things like winds, UV, temperature, ozone, even take biological samples.
Wisdom begins with wonder
“A major aspect of the Airbus Perlan Mission II is to inspire young people to go into STEM subjects because they see that you can do cool stuff with it,” says Perlan Project board member Stéphane Fymat. “The heyday of the US space programme was so inspiring, and when it slowed down, a lot of people were left wanting. Now, they’re the ones getting involved in innovative aerospace endeavours like ours.”
We’re going to have multiple masters’ and PhD students writing their meteorological, aviation and aeronautical engineering theses on this project. The Perlan Mission’s longevity is extended thanks to their research of those shaping aerospace’s future.
Airbus Perlan Mission II goals
Perlan wants you!
You can help the Perlan 2 inspire excitement about science and math with its flight to the edge of space:
If you know a high school teacher who might like to bring the Perlan Project into their classroom, contact CEO Ed Warnock. If you know a graduate student who needs a serious research project, contact Chief Scientist Dr. Elizabeth Austin.
The Perlan Project is also seeking volunteers to develop classroom modules for kindergarten through graduate levels and to organize videos and scientific data online for public access.
Meet some members of the Airbus Perlan Mission II team
Einar Enevoldson, Founder & Chairman of the Board
“We will be very busy until we leave for El Calafate.”
Einar is a lifetime glider pilot, former jet fighter pilot in the USAF, exchange officer with the Royal Air Force and a former NASA test pilot. He has flown above 50,000 feet in 17 different types of aircraft. Along with Steve Fossett, Einar set the world sailplane absolute altitude record of 50,722 feet in the Perlan 1.
Dr. Elizabeth Austin, Chief Meteorologist
“Days when the weather patterns align to create excellent conditions are just a handful”
Elizabeth is the President of WeatherExtreme Ltd, one of the nation’s leading authorities on climate change, forensic and aviation meteorology, mountain weather, cloud and ice physics, stratrospheric mountain wave, and mesoscale atmospheric modeling.
Jim Payne, Test Pilot
"It'll be a lot of fun, that's for sure”
An award-winning Air Force pilot, Jim has been soaring since 1971. He held the world record for gliding speed, and has won 4 OLC Championships for distance and 7 for speed. He was awarded the 2001 Lilienthal Medal (highest award given by the FAI for gliding) and is a member of the Soaring Hall of Fame.
Stéphane Fymat, Perlan Project Board member
“Airbus Perlan Mission II may be like the first person to break the four-minute mile”
Stéphane Fymat has 25 years of experience in the aerospace and computer industries, and has two patents issued and one pending in avionics. A private pilot, he founded Smartplane Inc. in 2011, a company developing a semi-autonomous personal aircraft, and is its Chief Executive Officer.
Weighing as much as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, the Perlan 2 will carry a crew of two, plus scientific instruments that will provide new insight into climate change and our upper atmosphere. Find out how giant mountain waves will lift the engineless sailplane.
Perlan 2: riding the stratospheric waves
The Perlan Project’s name means ‘pearl’ in Icelandic, chosen for the pearlescent nacreous clouds that appear where this glider plane aspires to climb: the uncharted winter polar stratosphere.
So how will it get there? Stratospheric mountain waves. Glider pilots have surfed on mountain waves since 1932. In 1992, the Perlan Project’s founder Einar Enevoldson, a glider pilot and NASA test pilot, saw evidence that in regions closer to the Poles, in winter, the waves could extend above the troposphere and well into the stratosphere.
Just as a river flows over a rock, forming waves behind it, strong winds crossing a mountain range also make waves. These waves often crest at the top of the troposphere (10 km), but when the winter polar vortex is active, it creates more energy over the mountains.
If the polar vortex’s high polar night jet aligns with the lower-level jet stream, it’ll blast the mountain waves – and any enterprising glider plane in their current – up into the stratosphere.
The record-breaking mission
For more information on the Airbus Perlan Mission II, visit the Perlan Project website.
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