Flying an aircraft to the edge of space usually involves a jet engine, a full tank of fuel, a whole load of noise and a pilot with the kind of Right Stuff needed to reach for the stars.
Not any more.
This week the experimental Airbus Perlan Mission II pressurized glider got there by silently riding atmospheric pressure waves. And then it kept going – smashing what’s believed to be the record for subsonic human flight in a winged aircraft by reaching more than 76,000 feet.
This meant the flight crossed the Armstrong Line, the point in the atmosphere beyond which the blood in a human’s body will boil unless it’s protected.
Which means it’s probably safe to say chief pilot Jim Payne and co-pilot Tim Gardner also have the Right Stuff.
The achievement, claimed on Perlan 2’s Twitter feed, comes just days after the experimental glider reached 62,000 feet and a year after it hit 52,221 feet over the same region, El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia.
“Achieving the impossible”
The team use a unique closed-loop rebreather system to minimize the amount of oxygen needed to be carried.
“Perlan Project is achieving the seemingly impossible, and our support for this endeavor sends a message to our employees, suppliers and competitors that we will not settle for being anything less than extraordinary,” said Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus, sponsors of the project.
Built in Oregon, the Perlan 2 has a wingspan of 84 feet and weighs 1,800 pounds.
The crew recently began using a high altitude tow plane – a modified Grob Egrett G520 turboprop – rather than a conventional glider tow plane, to reach greater heights.
The glider uses atmospheric pressure variations caused by the polar vortex and a related weather phenomenon called the stratospheric polar night jet to ascend farther and farther upwards.
This only occurs in a few places in the world, one of which happens to be in the area around El Calafate in the Andes Mountains.
Higher altitude flights
Perlan 2 was designed to soar up to 90,000 feet at the edge of space. The crew aim to continue pursuing higher altitude flights in Argentina until mid-September 2018.
While it will reach a maximum speed of about 280 mph at this height, the glider’s airspeed indicator will only indicate 36 knots (about 41 mph) due to the very thin air at this elevation.
“At that height, stars are visible even during the day,” Payne previously told CNN. “It’ll be a lot of fun, that’s for sure.”
The two seats that are built into the gliders pressurized cockpit are about the size of recliner chairs.
“It’s very comfortable,” he added. “Flying these long missions, you’re continuously analyzing what’s going on around you: the weather, the wind currents, the air traffic control situation and so on, so time goes by pretty fast.”
Scientific equipment on board the glider will gather data to study weather and atmospheric phenomena, which engineers may use to learn more about how aircraft perform in thin air.