Up, up, and away! Two glider pilots are riding high after smashing a world altitude record. The duo accomplished the high-flying feat using wind as their only engine.
In September, glider pilots Jim Payne and Tim Gardner flew to new heights above Argentina’s Andes Mountains in an experimental sailplane. After setting not one but two unofficial world altitude records for glider flight, the two broke their own team’s records by more than 10,000 feet. Payne and Gardner are part of the Perlan Project, builders of the engineless glider.
How do aircraft fly so high without an engine? Gliders “surf” on “mountain waves,” the result of air flowing up, over, and down mountains. Glider pilots ride in the wave, not on it. Near Earth’s poles, mountain waves can extend high into the stratosphere, the second layer of Earth’s atmosphere. During certain times of the year, the waves are sometimes strong enough to lift a glider to extraordinary altitudes. Perlan Project team members are exploring the altitude and speed boundaries of mountain waves for glider flight.
Payne participated in all three of Perlan Project’s record-busting flights this year. He and Gardner flew their Airbus Perlan 2 aircraft to over 73,000 feet. That’s more than three miles above the highest altitude used by commercial flights. It’s more than twice as high as Mount Everest!
At those altitudes, “the sky is starting to get dark” and you can see the curve of the Earth, Payne says. “You get some beautiful vistas from up there.” Imagine how well “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) from 13 miles up!
The Perlan Project’s test flights help pilots and designers determine how the trial aircraft is performing. The team tested the glider for both altitude and speed during its time in Argentina.
“We’re testing just the way the Air Force would,” Payne says.
Designers built the Perlan 2 glider to soar up to 90,000 feet. Payne calls the glider “a cross between a spaceship and an F-16.” He thinks the aircraft can get there some day. . . and perhaps beyond.
Perlan 2’s altitude record must remain unofficial until aviation authorities review it. But Payne believes his team’s achievement is “the highest sustained flight by a winged, manned, subsonic aircraft.”
If not, the team will need to wait until next year to try again because “mountain wave season” is over for 2018. Whatever the outcome, Perlan Project members hope to keep pushing the sky limit.