The Airbus Perlan 2 has reached new heights, breaking the world record for a glider flight as it soared to 52,172 feet. An Aero Boero AB-180 tow plane pulled chief pilot Jim Payne and co-pilot Morgan Sandercock off the ground at Comandante Armando Tola International Airport, which sits at an elevation of 669 feet in El Calafate, Argentina.
The area around El Calafate is one of only a few places on Earth where mountain waves combine with a high altitude polar vortex — conditions critical to providing enough lift to bring a glider into the stratosphere. Airbus corporate communications director James Darcy said there are also only certain times of the year when the conditions are favorable and, during those seasons, only a few days produce favorable flight conditions for such a high altitude flight.
On Sunday, analyses by ground crews, which use data from weather balloons and meteorologists, did not indicate favorable conditions for a record flight. However, the pilots felt otherwise. They were right.
The glider was released at 10,500 feet and mountain waves carried the Perlan 2 to approximately 40,000 feet. Darcy said there is generally a segment of altitude between the lifting layers where the glider can’t continue to gain altitude. An overlap is critical for bringing the glider into the stratosphere. And while the polar vortex did not quite overlap with the mountain waves, the glider was close enough that the pilots could redirect it to an area where they could continue to gain altitude.
The pilots said the climb rate was about 300 feet on average and the record flight lasted about 6.6 hours.
“We will continue to strive for even higher altitudes, and to continue our scientific experiments to explore the mysteries of the stratosphere,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project. “We’ve made history, but the learning has just begun.”
The previous record was set by the first version of the Perlan, which reached 50,727 feet in 2006 with The Perlan Project’s founder Einar Enevoldson and lead project sponsor Steve Fossett at the controls.