Innovative glider smashes high-altitude flight record

Written by Tom Metcalfe

 

Airbus Perlan
The tail camera of the Airbus Perlan glider captured this view from a world-record setting altitude.Airbus

High above the Andes Mountains, an experimental glider has set a world record for high-altitude flight.

On Sept. 2, the sleek Perlan 2 glider carried two pilots to 76,100 feet, or more than 14 miles, over the El Calafate region in southern Argentina. That’s the highest altitude ever reached by humans aboard an unpowered fixed-wing aircraft, and one of the highest altitudes reached by an aircraft of any description. Only spy planesand specialized balloons have flown higher.

“The biggest impression is, it’s a long ways down from up here,” one of the pilots, Jim Payne, said after the record-setting flight, which was one in a series of test flights sponsored by aerospace giant Airbus. “The horizon starts to have a curvature in it and the sky is getting darker as we climb. … It’s a fantastic experience, once in a lifetime.”

The record eclipses one set during a previous Perlan 2 flight over El Calafate on Aug. 28, which reached an altitude of 65,600 feet.

But the recent outing, which took about five hours, wasn’t just about establishing bragging rights. Ed Warnock, the aerospace engineer who heads the Perlan Project, a Beaverton, Oregon-based nonprofit that designed and built the $3 million glider, said data collected by the glider would help provide a better understanding of high-altitude air currents. That could help commercial pilots avoid dangerous but invisible regions of turbulence.

Perlan 2, which is made of carbon fiber composite material, has an unladen weight of 1,540 pounds, according to Payne. Its wingspan is 84 feet — about twice that of a fighter jet.

Since the Perlan 2 glider is unpowered, its onboard instruments can measure the speed, temperature and chemical composition of high-altitude winds without interference from a hot, exhaust-spewing engine. “This cannot be done with a propeller flight or jet, or from [a] satellite,” Jie Gong, an atmospheric scientist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, told NBC News MACH in an email.

The new altitude record might not last long. Payne said the weather conditions needed to reach high altitudes in the El Calafate region will persist for about another 10 days, adding that he and other pilots involved in the flights hope to reach 90,000 feet in the coming days before the Perlan 2 is packaged up and returned to the U.S.

Read more at www.nbcnews.com

Comments (4)

  • Avatar

    Alan Stewart

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    BOOOOOOOOOOOTIFUL!!!! Old 1930’s ariline pilots joke. ‘I told Wilbur and Orville, the thing will never get off the ground.’

  • Avatar

    jerry krause

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    Hi PSI Readers,

    Do not fail to note the white band just above the horizon in the photo taken by the tail camera. It alerts us to a critically important feature of the earth’s atmosphere which is commonly overlooked.

    Have a good day, Jerry

  • Avatar

    K. Kaiser

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    No doubt, an achievement!

    Still, the statement “… after an airplane towed the glider to 40,000 feet” provides, IMHO, a big difference to getting there (and/or higher) just by the “thermals;” wouldn’t you agree?

    It’s not the same as getting up from the ground with a little tow to 1000 ft. or so.

    • Avatar

      jerry krause

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      Hi K,

      The phrase–“reached the record-setting altitude by riding areas of uplift in the waves after an airplane towed the glider to 40,000 feet”–is misleading. If you go the atmospheric soundings launched at Punta Arenas between the mornings of 9/1, 9/2/ and 9/3 the evidence is that at 40000 feet there was likely a westerly (with a possible slight north component) jetstream of 100 knots per hour which only increased with increasing altitude. And I have watched buzzards, as they glided on a steady westerly wind at a much lower altitude, at stationary positions relative to the ground for a minute or more. It seemed obvious they were just doing this for their enjoyment as at one time there were 5 or so gliding in formation because of this special wind condition caused by a ridge just as the Andes were causing the jet stream to move at to much higher altitudes than ‘normal’.

      So the glider at 40000 could have remained nearly stationary as it slowly climbed upward into a steady wind whose velocity steadily increased with increasing altitude. Maybe the limiting issue of altitude reached is the supply of oxygen which limits the gliding time above 40,000 ft. About the validity of this speculation I have no idea.

      Have a good day, Jerry

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