Stratospheric glider reaches for stars
It has been a dozen years since adventurer Steve Fossett climbed into a small plane on Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch and flew into history.
It would be more than a year before his remains were found in the mountains above Mammoth. In the interim, work Fossett started building a glider that could soar 90,000 feet, into the stratosphere, has continued.
This weekend the Airbus Perlan II, which is based at Minden-Tahoe Airport, is flying in South America in an effort not just to set altitude records but to learn more about the upper atmosphere.
The project was conceived by Fossett and Einar Enevolson to study conditions in the upper atmosphere. Fossett and Enevoldson broke an altitude record of 50,722 feet on Aug. 30, 2006, in the Perlan I.
The two men found that the pressure suits they were wearing blew up like balloons at high altitude, limiting their maneuverability.
That led to one of the major innovations in the Perlan II a pressurized cabin will allow the crew to do without the suits.
Flown by Minden resident Jim Payne, the Perlan II is essentially a space capsule with wings.
Taking advantage of the mountain wave caused by wind blowing over the Andes and then linking up with the polar vortex, the Perlan II climbed to a record 76,100 feet in August 2018.
Thanks to the pressurized cabin and 84-foot wingspan, the Perlan II can fly in 2 percent of the atmosphere at sea level.
“The Perlan II, if you could launch it, could fly safely on Mars,” Payne said in a May media event before the aircraft was boxed up and sent to South America in June.
On Wednesday, the Perlan II was towed to roughly 45,000 feet, but after a three-hour and 47-minute flight returned to base.
The aircraft was expected to fly again on Friday.
Organizers said that any one of the flights that occur in the next weeks could set a new aviation record for winged manned aircraft in sustained flight.
Because the windows typically ice over during flight, operators will navigate using a moving map display that allows them to check their position relative to the ground.
Just some of the findings made by the Perlan II include research into climate and meteorology related to extreme weather, climate change engineering and more.
For instance, using data developed by their research, Payne said commercial airline pilots could save substantial amounts of money on fuel.
Flight operations are expected to run through September, during the Argentine winter.
For more about the project, visit http://www.perlanproject.org/