Perlan 2, a glider piloted by Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock, reached 52,172 feet on Sept. 3, riding the stratospheric mountain wave above Argentina to a new altitude record (pending official validation). "All the right stuff” came together on the Airbus-supported mission’s thirty-eighth flight.
The pilots began preparing for the Airbus Perlan Mission II in mid-July. An earlier flight reached 32,500 feet above the Patagonia Mountains. Much like a surfer eyeballing the next set of ocean rollers, the two pilots launched their ship into atmospheric waves created by the confluence of lower-altitude winds being lifted by mountains, and the interaction between those waves and the southern polar vortex. That combination carried the project to unprecedented heights.
The crew of Perlan 2 began the historic day by pushing the 1,800-pound, pressurized sailplane, with its 84-foot wingspan, out of the El Calafate Airport hangar at sunrise. Surface winds were out of the east when the aircraft was towed to a sufficient starting altitude, and the aircraft quickly climbed to 18,000 feet by connecting with a “mid-level wave,” according to a Perlan Project blog report.
The cabin was pressurized to an altitude of 14,500 feet; Payne and Sandercock used rebreather apparatus to soar toward 50,000 feet in the oxygen-starved environment, a technology that was originally pioneered by deep-water cave divers. They battled rising and sinking air rolling off the Andes Mountains and deployed a “stairstep” technique to climb incrementally higher and higher into the blue sky as they drifted past wispy clouds with the airspeed around 85 knots.
Once the news spread on social media that the flight was underway and in favorable conditions, “thousands of viewers” followed the team via the virtual cockpit, according to the report.
A virtual cheer went up that buoyed the pilots’ spirits as they topped 33,000 feet. “Near the tropopause the lift again softened” as outside temperatures sank to -90 degrees Fahrenheit, the report said, before they caught a “weak climb” to 38,000 feet. The pilots wore protective clothing to stay warm in the frigid high-altitude environment. “Because the cabin is sealed, we’re not leaking air in, the only leaks we’ll have are outward,” Payne explained during a July AOPA Hangar Talk podcast.
The Perlan pilots had to maintain that altitude—and steer clear of commercial jet traffic off the Chilean coast headed to Antarctica—for 40 minutes. The ground crew congratulated Payne when he topped 42,000 feet—his previous personal record that was set in 1986.
The team noted that from 40,000 feet to 50,000 feet, Perlan 2 “averaged a 3-knot climb” as they targeted a GPS altitude of 51,214 feet, explaining that pressure altitude was not used above 15,000 meters.
“The excitement was building as the record setting altitude became nearer,” the team reported in its blog. There were so many aviation and science communities monitoring the flight worldwide that the virtual cockpit’s real-time displays briefly hiccupped, causing some to wonder whether Perlan 2 achieved its goal.
Payne keyed the radio with a countdown announcing, “10 meters, 6 meters, 2 meters, SCORE!” As the aircraft surpassed its goal, Payne handed controls over to Sandercock so he could visually document the flight's apex. The aircraft’s front left window was completely frosted over and ice crystals were hampering the right-side view as they set the glider altitude record at 52,172 feet—about 1,000 feet more than needed.
The pilots again had to loiter above the commercial jet traffic during their lengthy descent and negotiated a flat tire upon landing—possibly caused by the extreme cold—that didn’t cause any damage.
"An amazing victory for aerospace innovation and scientific discovery," tweeted Perlan Project CEO Ed Warnock; “Stunning performance!!!!!” tweeted Airbus.
One of the team’s goals was to apply aerospace technology based on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) concepts for atmospheric research, and they enlisted young people to take an active role in the flight.
AOPA has recognized the importance of building the pilot population, and the association has created several programs to ensure a robust future for aviators. The goal of AOPA’s You Can Fly High School Initiative is to help build and sustain aviation-based STEM programs and provide a quality workforce to the aviation industry.
Payne explained during the recent podcast that teachers held classroom competitions to design high-altitude experiments for the Perlan Project, and Perlan 2 would contain experiment containers—called CubeSats—to “measure temperature, humidity, ozone,” gases, and pollutants in the troposphere.
The CubeSats were assembled in “classrooms throughout America” to test the theory that the troposphere “is one of the primary regions for significant mixtures of aerosols” and other elements that could affect worldwide weather patterns. “Any data that we can gather better enables scientists to model what’s going on.”
Payne said he hoped “young people will see what we’re doing and it will inspire them to be interested in STEM,” and perhaps lead them to future aerospace or science careers.