The SR-71 Blackbird is one of the most astonishing things ever created by man. First flown in 1964, it could fly as high as 85,000 feet and its standard evasive maneuver if missiles were fired at it was to simply fly away—the plane could exceed Mach 3 easily.
But that was then. Now, in the twenty-first century, we don’t need absurdly powerful engines to get 17 miles above the surface of the earth. At least that’s what Airbus and the other companies behind the Perlan glider think. They’ve built an 1,800-pound, 84-foot wide glider that, they say, will be able to reach 90,000 feet simply by catching rising air currents.
They aren’t quite there yet, but, towed by a plane to gain some initial altitude like a standard glider, the Perlan 2 glider did successfully fly this week for the first time, cruising at 5,000 feet above Oregon.
The plan is to use a phenomenon called wave lift, currents created by high-level winds passing over a mountain range. If the wind continues to blow over the ridge, it will reach higher and higher upward velocities which the aircraft can ride all the way to 90,000 feet.
At that altitude, Perlan 2 will fly at more than 400 mph, with the two-man crew breathing pure oxygen through a rebreather, a system that recycles breathing air, adds oxygen and feeds it to the pilot. The craft will carry scientific instruments to study weather at the highest levels of the stratosphere, help improve our understanding of climate change with better data, take samples of the ozone layer, and gather a ton of information about what it’s like to fly at that altitude.
Oh, and the air at that altitude, about two percent the density of what you breathe at sea level, is similar to the atmosphere on Mars, so we can get an idea of what planes or helicopters there might experience.
In 1996, billionaire Steve Fossett and a copilot took the first plane, Perlan 1, to 50,722 feet, the highest point ever hit by a glider. They could have flown even higher, but the cabin was unpressurized and their flight suits began expanding so significantly that they couldn’t control the aircraft any longer. Airbus is the Perlan 2’s primary sponsor, United Technologies (an American consortium that makes the Black Hawk helicopter, among other things) also contributes.
Perlan 2 has been equipped with a pressurized cabin that holds the atmosphere equivalent to that around 14,000 feet. No more bulky, pressurized suits, so that’s one problem solved.
If something goes wrong at high altitude, the pilots can deploy a drogue parachute from the tail of the Perlan 2 for a rapid, vertical descent. A more traditional ballistic recovery parachute can deploy at lower altitudes to bring the entire plane to the ground.
“This marks a major breakthrough in aviation innovation,” says Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project. “One that will allow winged exploration of the atmosphere at the edge of space and lead to new discoveries to unravel some of the continuing mysteries of weather, climate change and ozone depletion.”
With the first flight successfully completed, the plan is to fly to 90,000 feet next year over the Andes in Argentina.Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.