Late last week, pilots of the Airbus-funded Perlan Mission II engine-less glider recorded a new best when they leveled off at 32,500 feet. The record for glider flight was set in 2006 by Perlan I when it reached an altitude of 50,727 feet. The typical cruising altitude of a passenger jet is 39,000 feet.
The overall goals of the glider are not just to set records, but to collect data on climate change, weather patterns, and the high-altitude flight environment. The all-volunteer team is based out of El Calafate, Argentina and piloted by Jim Payne, Morgan Sandercock, Tim Gardner, and Miguel Iturmendi.
El Calafate, in the Patagonian region of Argentina, is in one of a few places on earth where a combination of mountain winds and the polar vortex create the world's highest stratospheric mountain waves. The pilots feel these rising air currents are strong enough to send their glider to the edge of space.
The focus of the project’s research is timely on a couple of fronts. In early July, a rift in Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf created the third-largest iceberg ever recorded. Now floating in the open sea, this block of ice is the size of Delaware, carries the mass of 5.6 Mount Everests, and if it melted would fill Lake Erie twice. Scientists see the new iceberg as a product of global climate change.
The engineless design of the Perlan enables it to collect uncontaminated air samples from a range of altitudes, and with greater navigational controls than a weather balloon. This data can be used to assess changes in air quality and temperature around the globe.
Additionally, the glider can collect data relative to high altitude turbulence, and measure the effects greater radiation exposure can have on flight crews and aircraft. The radiation exposure is the result of the normal shielding from Earth's atmosphere against high-energy solar particles and cosmic rays being weaker at higher altitudes. This type of data will serve Airbus well as it looks to compete with Boeing and Lockheed in developing next generation passenger jets and fighter planes.