The Airbus Perlan 2 Glider waits to be shipped from a port in Long Beach, California, to Chile and then trucked over the Andes to Argentina’s Patagonia region.
Sometime in 2017 the powerless aircraft will be lifted by tow plane from El Calafate at the foot of the Andes and released at 12,000 feet to surf powerful stratospheric mountain waves generated by the Antarctic polar vortex. Mountainous regions near the Earth’s poles produce these massive stratospheric mountain waves, and some of the biggest occur over El Calafate.
When conditions are right, the glider is capable of reaching 90,000 feet in four to six hours. When it achieves this height, the Perlan 2 will become the highest-flying unpowered aircraft in history. Planes powered by jet engines have reached over 120,000 feet.
That’s the plan according to University of Arizona College of Engineering alumnus Ed Warnock, CEO of the Perlan Project, a high-altitude research organization.
Perlan’s Storied Past
The Perlan Project aims to break the world altitude record for engineless aircraft set by the first Perlan in 2006, when balloonist and adventurer Steve Fossett and former NASA test pilot Einar Enevoldson soared to 51,000 feet.
Fossett disappeared in 2007 while flying a light aircraft over California’s Sierra Nevada.
With the loss of the Perlan’s famed pilot and primary financial backer, fellow pilot Enevoldson set out to find new sources of funding.
Early supporters included Australian glider pilot Morgan Sandercock and American engineer Dennis Tito, the first person to pay his own way to visit the International Space Station.
Warnock, who received his bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from the UA in 1968, was reading about the Perlan Project in Soaring magazine at his Oregon home a couple of years later. Intrigued, he contacted Enevoldson and agreed to become the CEO of the project.
A year later, glider pilot Jim Payne, who holds several world soaring records, joined the project as chief pilot. The three resolved to keep Perlan aloft.
Payne and a co-pilot will steer Perlan 2 on its audacious journey over Patagonia. As the project’s CEO, Warnock works on managing details and raising funds for the nonprofit. The Perlan Project scored a coup in 2014, when aviation giant Airbus Group became its lead sponsor.
Surfing the Stratosphere for Science
Perlan 2, which Warnock dubs a “spacecraft with wings,” is small. It has a wingspan of 84 feet and weighs 1,800 pounds with two pilots and all equipment aboard. Made of extremely strong but lightweight carbon fiber, it can fly up to 400 mph on stratospheric mountain waves.
Depending upon latitude, the stratosphere extends from 26,000 to 160,000 feet above the Earth.
“We used to think that everything in the stratosphere, say about 40,000 feet, was free of vertical currents; that it was a region where winds were mostly horizontal,” Warnock said. “As it turns out, some of the biggest waves in the world occur in the stratosphere when the polar vortex blows over tall mountains. We know that these stratospheric waves can influence weather patterns and climate change, and the Perlan Project will help us understand how.”
Perlan 2 will travel through the ozone hole and gather data on ozone depletion and its implications for solar radiation on Earth. At 90,000 feet, it will have traveled far into the stratosphere to the “edge of space” -- so called because 98 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere lies below.
The expedition could also yield some of the first clues about flying on Mars. That’s because at 90,000 feet, the air is 2 percent as dense as the air at sea level, and temperatures can dip below minus 70 degrees Celsius -- atmospheric conditions like those on Mars.
Perlan 2’s cockpit is pressurized, so its pilots will not have to wear spacesuits; but they will breathe pure oxygen through a mask attached to a rebreather system.
Where Pilots Fear to Tread
Given his own career trajectory, it is not surprising Warnock was captivated by the Perlan story.
After graduating from the UA, he worked as a thermodynamicist at the Naval Air Weapons Station at China Lake in the Mohave Desert and as a bush pilot in the Philippines and Africa -- exciting but perilous work.
“Bush pilots go where most pilots fear to tread,” he said.
He and his wife Linda, whom he met at the UA, returned to the United States in 1981.
Warnock founded an Oregon-based business-consulting firm, Cumulus Resources LLC, and earned a master’s degree in business from Antioch University. He teaches business management strategy at Willamette University and the University of Oregon and consults on strategic planning with organizations in the United States and abroad.
He and the Perlan Project work to inspire youth in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, subjects. Warnock makes presentations with a fiberglass mockup of the Perlan’s cockpit at colleges and science fairs, and the national organization Teachers in Space established a Perlan CubeSat competition for students in grades K through 12.
Eight winning CubeSats, miniature satellites used for space research, will join Perlan 2 on its journey to the edge of space.
Warnock reached his own record altitude of 28,000 feet a few years ago in a flight over Minden, Nevada. Now 72, with four grandchildren, he aspires to someday soar in the stratosphere himself and see the curvature of the Earth.
“Soaring in a sailplane is quiet and graceful,” Warnock said. “It is as close an experience as you can get to being a bird.”
The Perlan Project is featured in the cover story of the July 2016 issue of Smithsonian Air & Space magazine.