The Perlan Mission II glider, which is designed to fly higher than the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird, has made its maiden flight. The aircraft separated from its towplane at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,524 m) above Roberts Field at Redmond Municipal Airport in Oregon, but is expected to go much higher next year when it makes a world altitude record attempt to the edge of space.

Jim Payne and Morgan Sandercock piloted the aircraft on its first flight, gliding back to the ground on wings with a span of 84 ft (25.6 m) and surface area of 263 sq ft (24.4 sq m). The 5,000-ft altitude of the maiden flight is a baby step for the aircraft, which is expected to reach 90,000 ft (27,400 m) next year when it will attempt to soar to the edge of space over Argentina.

If successful, this will not only smash the current glider world record altitude of 50,727 ft (15,460 m) set by Perlan II's predecessor, Perlan Mission I, in 2006 with Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson at the controls, but it will also beat the SR-71's current record-holding altitude of 85,069 ft (25,929 m). Although a number of aircraft have exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs, the SR-71 retains the "absolute altitude record" for sustained flight.

While the SR-71 achieved the record drawing power from two Pratt & Whitney J58 axial-flow turbo-jet engines, Perlan II will look to reach these dizzying heights by riding air currents over certain mountainous regions near the north and south poles that can reach into the stratosphere.

The Perlan team isn't looking to go to the edge of space just because it is there, but to aid in research into high-altitude flight, climate change and space exploration. Since the aircraft is engineless, it will reach high altitudes without polluting the atmosphere it will study in an effort to shed more light on how the stratosphere impacts global weather, the health of the ozone layer, and to collect data to improve climate models for more accurate climate change predictions.

"The knowledge gained from this project will impact how the world understands and addresses climate change," says Airbus Group Chairman and CEO, Tom Enders. "But it will also help Airbus continue to innovate ways to fly higher, faster and cleaner, on Earth and possibly beyond."

Here Enders is referring to the atmospheric conditions the aircraft will encounter at 90,000 ft, where the air density will be less than two percent of that found at sea level, requiring the aircraft to be pressurized and the pilots to breathe pure oxygen through a rebreather system similar to those used by astronauts. It will also make the atmospheric conditions similar to those found on Mars, allowing the aircraft to provide some clues as to how wingborne aircraft could handle flying over the Red Planet.

Although the Perlan Project is a volunteer-run, non-profit undertaking, alongside companies including Weather Extreme Ltd., United Technologies and BRS Aerospace, Airbus Group helps sponsor the team.

The maiden flight is the first of many to be conducted over the coming nine months as the Perlan Project team prepares for the 90,000-ft altitude attempt in July 2016.

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