Come Wednesday and Airbus’ Perlan 2 glider – the world’s first engineless aircraft – will go on a ‘record-breaking’ spree as it attempts to reach the edge of space by flying close to 90,000 feet in the air.
The initial test flight which is scheduled to take place at the Redmond Airport in Oregon, hopes to open up a world of new discoveries related to aeronautics, climate change and space exploration – apart from attempting to shatter the fixed-wing aircraft altitude record of 50,722 feet set by founder Einar Enevoldson and his co-pilot and noted adventurer Steve Fossett in 2006.
“It’s going to be a milestone in aviation history,” boasted Doug Perrenod, the project coordinator for the Perlan 2 launch. “This glider is going to go higher than any other fixed-wing aircraft with a pilot in it. That includes the Air Force’s U-2 spy plane. It really will be the edge of space.”
All aircrafts are a bundle of compromises. Some designs fly well at low altitudes but are unable to sustain flight at high altitudes. Some are optimized for high altitude but fly poorly at low altitudes. Some are designed to carry heavy loads and some carry little more than a pilot. The Perlan 2, for that matter, is an exception by itself.
The dream of Enevoldson, a former NASA test pilot, the Perlan Project looks to build a glider that can travel to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Perlan 2, an 1,800-pound glider – weighing the same as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle – with an 84-foot wingspan, will be towed into the air like a traditional glider, but will then ride high altitude mountain waves in its later flights when it attempts to go beyond 50,000 feet.
“Before, there’s never been a glider that could sustain pilots that high,” Perrenod said. “Aircrafts that go into higher altitudes have pressurized systems. Commercial aircrafts, for example, pump air into their planes for their crew and passengers.
“Gliders don’t have engines, though,” Perrenod added. “What glider pilots have discovered at high altitudes is that they needed some way to pressurize the cockpit.”
The Perlan Project developed its own life-support system for its high-altitude flights, a “re-breather” system similar to underwater diving.
“This is not an off-the-shelf thing,” Perrenod added. “We’ve taken some different components and ideas and customized them for our own application. Almost everything from nose to tail (on the glider) is new technology. If we accomplish everything we’re trying to do, this thing will wind up in the Smithsonian.”
Pressurizing the Perlan 2’s cockpit gives it a unique look among gliders, Perrenod says.
“It resembles the private spaceships built by Virgin Galactic,” Perrenod added. “We pressurized the cockpit area, giving it windows instead of the big conventional bubble on most gliders. It’s basically a spaceship with wings.”
If all goes well in Redmond, where Perlan 2 might make as many as 20 flights at the airport over the next two months, the Perlan Project will move to Nevada in December to do a series of higher altitude tests.
“We may not get it done the first day or the first week,” Perrenod said. “It took Enevoldson and Fossett a few years to get to the altitude they did. It was one success against several failures. A lot of it depends on how well this first flight goes.”
Image and excerpt credits: Airbus-Perlan Project