Can a glider fly to more than 90,000 feet? That’s the question the Perlan Project, a nonprofit aeronautical and atmospheric research organization, hopes to answer in a partnership with Airbus Group that was announced this week at EAA AirVenture 2014 in Oshkosh, Wis.
The Perlan Project began back in the early 1990s with the discovery of stratospheric mountain waves. Fueled by strong winds blowing over the tops of high mountain ranges such as the Andes, the waves of air shoot upward through the atmosphere, nearly to the edge of space. NASA test pilot and project founder Einar Enevoldson theorized that a glider could ride these waves higher than any has ever flown and proved it in 2006 when he and the late adventurer Steve Fossett broke the existing sailplane altitude record in a standard glider, reaching 50,671 feet before realizing the encumbrance of their expanded pressure suits made it dangerous to operate the controls. This experience led to the realization that a custom glider with a pressurized, heated cabin was needed to fully explore the phenomenon.
“Our company is built on the shoulders of aviation pioneers who pushed boundaries in their own times, people who flew farther, higher, faster,” said Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders. “When we learned of the Perlan Project and its quest to soar to record heights, we knew that we needed to find a way to be a part of it,” he said adding that such a partnership is consistent with the airframer’s core values of furthering innovation in aerospace. The Toulouse, France-based company believes it will benefit from the opportunity to gain experience and data from very high altitude flight for use in future applications.
The Airbus Perlan Mission II, as the project is now known, expects to set new altitude records in the 2015 to 2016 time frame, while harvesting data about earth’s atmosphere and its ozone layer. To operate at the low air density found at that altitude–less than 2 percent of that at sea level, which would be similar to flying through the atmosphere of Mars–the project will require a new and highly efficient aerodynamic design for the sailplane.
“When Perlan Project began focusing on securing partnerships to help us complete the mission, we never dreamed we would be so fortunate as to secure a partner of the caliber of Airbus Group,” said Enevoldson. “Thanks to their technological and financial support, we are well on our way to the edge of space. Now it’s just a matter of completing the world’s most innovative glider and catching the right wave.”