Engineless Airbus Perlan rides mountain wave winds to a record 52,000 feet altitude

The Airbus Perlan Mission II, the world’s first initiative to send an engineless aircraft to the edge of space, made history yesterday in the Patagonia region of Argentina by soaring to over 52,000 feet and setting a new world altitude record for gliding.

“We are celebrating an amazing victory for aerospace innovation and scientific discovery today, and we’re so thankful to all the volunteers and sponsors whose years of tireless dedication have made this achievement possible,” said Ed Warnock, CEO of The Perlan Project. “We will continue to strive for even higher altitudes, and to continue our scientific experiments to explore the mysteries of the stratosphere. We’ve made history, but the learning has just begun.”

The Airbus Perlan Mission II uses a phenomena called “mountain waves” to achieve such impressive results without an engine. “Mountain waves form when winds of at least 15 knots (27.78 kilometres per hour) cross over a mountain range perpendicularly and the atmosphere is stable,” the Perlan website explains. “A glider uses the upward moving part of this wave system to climb.”

Mountain waves are rare and appear intermittently in only a few places on Earth. So, the Airbus Perlan II flew from Comandante Armando Tola International Airport in El Calafate, Argentina. The mountain ranges of Patagonia is one of few hotspots for moutain waves.

Airbus Perlan’s ultimate goal is to get a glider “to the edge of space,” which Perlan is defining as 90,000 feet (27,4 kilometres) up—a stratospheric height much further up than the cruising altitude of your typical plane, but a far cry from the 100-kilometer Karman line that most consider to be the actual boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

“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,” ‎said 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.”

Chief pilot Jim Payne and co-pilot Morgan Sandercock completed this historic Perlan 2 flight from Comandante Armando Tola International Airport in El Calafate, Argentina, surpassing the previous 50,727-foot world record for glider altitude that was set in the unpressurized Perlan 1 by The Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and lead project sponsor Steve Fossett in 2006.

Airbus Perlan Mission II is an initiative to fly an engineless glider to the edge of space using weather phenomena called stratospheric mountain waves, rising air currents that are significantly heightened a few times a year in only a couple places on earth by the polar vortex. The area around El Calafate, nestled within the Andes Mountains in Argentina, is one of those rare locations where these rising air currents can reach the stratosphere.