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Perlan Glider Soars Into AirVenture History Books

Barbara A. Schmitz

Perlan Project pilots Morgan Sandercock, Ed Warnock, and Jim Payne

The Perlan 2 glider, which will attempt to set the all-time world altitude record for wingborne flight in 2023, made its first public flight demo at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh on Tuesday.

Perlan 2 pilot Morgan Sandercock said the group always wanted to attend Oshkosh, but the timing of the fly-in convention coincides with the peak flying season in Argentina. But this year, due to COVID-19 and the international shipping situation, they decided to delay their record-breaking flight a year.

“In order to break the record, the glider needs to take advantage of the stratospheric mountain waves,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project. And there is a limited season for those, and they occur only in certain parts of the world.

When they decided to do a public flight demonstration, Oshkosh was the obvious choice.

“Oshkosh is the mecca for homebuilders and experimental aviation,” said Perlan 2 chief pilot Jim Payne. Warnock added: “It has a concentration of people who are most interested in planes, and they know it’s exciting that a plane without an engine can fly higher than the SR-71. The general public doesn’t see the awesomeness of that.”

Warnock said they hope Perlan 2, which can be viewed at the Airbus exhibit at the intersection of Waukau and Wittman roads, will inspire children to pursue aviation and other STEM fields.

“It’s the first successful pressurized glider … optimized for flight in extremely thin air,” Sandercock said. “It could fly on Mars if we had some way of transporting it to Mars.”

The Grob Egrett turboprop tows the Perlan 2 to 40,000-plus feet and releases it to catch the mountain waves as it continues to ascend.

One of the challenges of pressurizing a glider is that is there is no engine on board to run compressors, Warnock said. Instead, they use something more like a big scuba tank that is completely independent.

But the Perlan 2 is more than just a technological feat. It’s one in persistence and patience.

“We worked 11 years and two days to beat the 2006 record to get back to the same altitude,” Sandercock said.

Warnock said the 2006 flight proved the concept that you could soar with stratospheric mountain waves. But it also showed that the spacesuits borrowed from NASA for that flight would not work at even higher altitudes. The spacesuits expanded during flight, and actually made the cockpit a couple of inches wider, he said.

Besides having a pressurized cabin, Perlan 2 is built from an advanced carbon fiber that makes it stronger and lighter, with 84-foot wings and a gross weight of 2,000 pounds. It carries two experienced pilots.

“Flying a new aircraft design is a test flight, and the pilots need the discipline and knowledge of test pilots,” Warnock said. That means they sometimes need to say no and abort a flight if their climb is not following computer predictions of how it will react, even if it will cost them a record.

But safety is key, and besides the safety precautions added to the glider, they work with a team of the best — pilots, engineers, meteorologists, and others — called PARTners, or the Perlan Atmospheric Research Team. And they do it all with a zero-emission aircraft.

Following what they believe will be a record-breaking flight in 2023, Warnock said they plan to continue to do atmospheric research and find ways to fight climate change.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, he said they are always looking for more volunteers and donors. “We want to give people who love aviation and the spirit of exploring new boundaries the opportunity to get involved.”

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