At the edge of the stratosphere, Airbus tests its crafts for high-altitude aerodynamics and endurance
03 September 2018 – European aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, reported on Monday its space division has sent an unpowered glider to a height of 76,124 feet from its base at El Calafate in Argentina’s Patagonia region. This was the glider’s third attempt in just one week to set a new altitude record.
Known as the Airbus Perlan Mission II, the engineless Perlan 2 was soared to this incredible height, roughly 23 kilometres above the earth’s surface, to collect important data on flight performance and weather at the outer edge of the stratosphere.
The weekend’s flight by pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner surpassed even the maximum recorded altitude in level flight of the U.S. Air Force’s famous U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft which was flown to 73,737 feet by pilot Jerry Hoyt on 17 April 1989.
“The U-2 is powered by an engine that generates 17,000 lbs. of thrust. By contrast, the Perlan 2 is engineless, weighs just 1500 pounds, and soars to its record altitudes on rare stratospheric air currents formed by [Patagonia’s] mountain winds combining with the Polar Vortex,” Airbus stated.
Airbus Chief Executive, Tom Enders, said “World records are gratifying evidence of progress to a goal but the goal itself is advancing our knowledge and expertise. By exploring an underexplored part of the atmosphere, Perlan is teaching us about efficient high-altitude flight, about detecting natural sources of lift and avoiding turbulence, and even about the viability of wing-borne exploration of Mars. As a company that makes not just airliners but also high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles such as Zephyr as well as the Mars rover robotic vehicle, every Perlan flight is an investment in our future.”
In their first two flights, the piloting crews managed to reach 63,000 and 65,600 feet before Sunday’s historic flight which added another 10,000 feet of airspace, setting the new world record.
The overall altitude record for level flight of a manned aeroplane is held by the SR-71 Blackbird at 85,069 feet. The pressurized Perlan 2 glider is designed to fly to 90,000 feet given favourable conditions.
The weekend’s record flight is the culmination of decades of research and engineering innovation, and the work of a tireless international team of aviators and scientists who volunteer their time and expertise for the non-profit Perlan Project. The project is supported by Airbus in partnership with more than thirty other sponsors and technical contributors.