Airbus's Perlan Mission II took another step to the edge of space yesterday, setting a new record in the skies over Patagonia to become the first engineless glider to soar to over 52,000 ft (15,800 m). With chief pilot Jim Payne and co-pilot Morgan Sandercock at the controls, the Perlan 2 glider took off from the Comandante Armando Tola International Airport in El Calafate, Argentina and surpassed the previous record of 50,727 ft (15,462 m) set by the unpressurized Perlan 1 in 2006.
Yesterday's record flight is the latest phase in the Perlan Project's mission of sending an engineless glider to the beginning of space – an altitude of 62 mi (100 km). To achieve this, the Perlan 2 has an ultralight construction of only 1,100 lb (500 kg) when empty and a wingspan of 84 ft (27 m), as well as a pressurized cabin, an oxygen breathing system, and an emergency recovery parachute.
In order to reach extreme altitudes, the aircraft rides on the updraft of the peculiar confluence of Andean winds and the southern polar vortex in the south of Patagonia that generate the world's highest "stratospheric mountain waves." According to Airbus, Argentina is one of the few places on Earth where the rising air currents can reach the stratosphere at a few times of the year.
Airbus says that when the gliding season ends in Argentina, the mission will return to its base in Minden, Nevada to assess the data from the Perlan 2's flight recorders to improve the glider's design. The team will then go back to South America and attempt to reach 90,000 ft (27,400 m), which will be a record altitude for any wing-supported aircraft.
"With every Airbus Perlan Mission II milestone, we continue to learn more about how we can fly higher, faster and cleaner. But we also learn that aviation still has the power to surprise us, thrill us, and motivate us to find new frontiers of endeavor," says Tom Enders, Airbus CEO. "Perlan's outstanding aviation success is the result of bold thinking. It's this kind of thinking that is the cornerstone of our vision for the future of Airbus, which we hope will inspire a new generation of aerospace explorers and innovators."