Glider aims for the stratosphere
If you keep your eyes to the skies over Minden this spring, you might catch a far-off glimpse of pilot Jim Payne aboard a thin, white glider called the Perlan 2, soaring high over the Sierra. By June, Payne and the Perlan Project team will be headed for Argentina, where they hope to fly the glider to a record-breaking altitude of 90,000 feet, collecting climate data as they go.
“At 90,000 feet, you’re above most of the atmosphere, so the sky turns dark,” Payne said. “And in southern Argentina, at 90,000 feet, we should be able to see the Pacific Ocean.”
The Perlan Project, sponsored by Airbus, is a three-phase project aimed at exploring the edge of space in engineless, manned gliders. During the first phase of the project, pilots flew the Perlan 1 to 50,722 feet, setting the current record for high-altitude glider flight over El Calafate, Argentina.
During the second phase of the project, Payne and another pilot will attempt to reach 90,000 feet—approximately three times the normal cruising altitude of commercial airlines. “It’ll be a huge engineering feat,” Payne said. “Ninety thousand feet would be the highest altitude ever flown by a winged airplane in level flight.”
The Perlan 2 glider, designed specifically for the task, is a narrow-bodied, long-winged aircraft with a carbon fiber shell and a small cockpit that seats two pilots. To take off, the glider is pulled by a tow plane and released upon reaching an appropriate altitude. Pilots then use rising air currents to soar far into the atmosphere.
This winter, Payne and the Perlan team are installing the glider’s pressure system and doing test-flights around Minden, where air formations called mountain waves form along the edge of the Sierra. These currents could lift the glider as high as, say, 50,000 feet, but to get to 90,000 feet will require a very specific set of atmospheric conditions. For this, the team will head to Argentina.
The project’s chief meteorologist, Dr. Elizabeth Austin of Incline Village, leads the effort to locate the air currents required by the Perlan 2 mission. “We need mountain waves that go all the way into the stratosphere,” Austin said. “And most importantly, we need the polar vortex, and the polar night-jet.”
The polar vortex, an area of low pressure that forms over the poles during their respective winters, is a mass of cold, rotating air. The polar night-jet, a strong jet stream that forms only during polar winters, surrounds the polar vortex and helps to create the strong upward air currents that will provide the Perlan glider with it’s best chance of reaching 90,000 feet.
Upon reaching the desired altitude, the Perlan 2 has sensors on board for collecting data on interactions between the troposphere (the first layer of earth’s atmosphere) and the stratosphere (the second layer). They will also be sampling for ozone and chlorine-based chemicals, to learn about ozone depletion.
The mission certainly involves elements of danger. At 90,000 feet, Payne estimates that air temperatures will be close to minus 70 degrees Celsius, and wind speed will approach 200 knots. If they fly too slowly, the glider could stall; too fast, and shock waves could cause the glider to nose-dive.
If they succeed, however, they will have achieved a new world record for glider flight. And the view should be unforgettable.