Perlan Project pushes envelope of possibility
UND Aerospace played host to one of the most exciting projects in aeronautics last week
Jim Payne is in his element in Argentina, at the foot of the Andes Mountains, close to the picturesque Patagonian peaks and glaciers just miles from a remote airstrip near the town of El Calafate.
The retired U.S. Air Force test pilot also feels at home soaring at 70,000-plus feet above the Andes – where he’s closing in on breaking the altitude records previously set by the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
(Did we mention he’s trying to break that record in an aircraft that doesn’t have an engine?)
So, last week, it was curious to see Payne on the campus of UND, which is famously far from mountains of any kind. But there he was with Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, talking Polar Vortexes and stratospheric mountain waves and other tricks of the high-altitude gliding trade.
Payne is chief pilot for the Perlan Project, a nonprofit aeronautical research organization that sends engineless aircraft to the edge of space. To do that, Payne flies the Perlan II, an engineless but pressurized aircraft with 84-foot-long wings.
It can carry two pilots, scientific instruments, life support and two safety parachutes, yet has the same weight as a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, the Perlan Project’s website notes.
Last week, Payne and his team were in Grand Forks to test a different type of glider, though the flights were using the same tow plane as the one that pulls the Perlan II: a Grob 520 Egrett with high-altitude capabilities.
The exact details of their work remain under wraps, but Payne said that the conditions above North Dakota were aligned with data they needed to collect by glider for their client.
Also, UND’s hangar space at Grand Forks International Airport was uniquely suited for storing their modified Arcus J glider’s daunting 65-foot wingspan.
“I’ve known Jim since I was a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy in his Flight Test Techniques course,” said Kraus, who came to lead UND Aerospace after a 28-year career in the Air Force. “Several years later, we were both stationed at Edwards Air Force Base for a time.”
During a webinar last Wednesday, where Kraus hosted Payne for a showcase of Payne’s work with the record-smashing Perlan Project, the dean made mention of the distinguished pilot’s influence.
“That was a wonderful flight course that really set me on my Air Force career,” said Kraus in opening remarks to an audience of students, staff and faculty.
Peaks of performance
While Payne flew fighter jets throughout much of his Air Force career, his true love has always been soaring – going aloft with not much more than a pair of wings, a rudder and the wind.
Since the mid-2000s, the Perlan Project has taken the concept of gliding to the most extreme levels of performance. So much so, in fact, that it’s a discredit to call the aircraft “gliders.” Sailplanes are able to truly harness the power of rising air, as opposed to cutting through it on a graceful, slow descent.
“I got inspired to fly gliders by an issue of National Geographic that I read when I was maybe 13,” said Payne with a laugh. “You never know when you might do something that somebody reads about and says, ‘You know what, I’d really like to do that.’”
Perlan II – as the project is in its second phase – aims to beat the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird’s official altitude record of 85,609 feet above sea level. The Perlan Project bested all other engineless aircrafts’ altitude records years ago. Payne is now going for the limits of Earth’s atmosphere in a world-record attempt: to fly a sailplane higher than any other manned aircraft has ever flown in sustained level flight.
This stunning feat is only achievable because of a relatively recent discovery in the behavior of the Polar Vortex. In the 1990s, project founder Einar Enevoldson proved that in regions close to the poles, in winter, conditions can line up to create giant air waves off of mountain ranges – air waves massive enough to extend above the troposphere, well into the stratosphere miles above Earth.
Enevoldson realized that the forces in those winds could easily assist an aircraft to the edges of survivability, where the air is 3 percent of normal density and temperatures are minus 70 degrees C. It’s like being on the surface of Mars in such conditions, according to the Perlan Project’s website.
The project’s founder, a NASA test pilot, then went on to discover that the Patagonian ranges straddling Chile and Argentina provide optimal conditions for catching the most consistent and impressive forms of mountain waves.
Perlan II was created as Enevoldson and his co-pilot descended from a then-record 50,722 feet above El Calafate in 2006. Since then, with the support of European aerospace giant Airbus, the Perlan Project has produced a completely custom airframe that can not only withstand the forces of harnessing mountain waves, but maintain survivable pressures for two crew members without the need for flight suits akin to those required for piloting the SR-71.
Space capsule with wings
As one can imagine, creating a vessel that can hold two people and all of the required equipment yet still be light enough to “catch the waves” (while maintaining structural integrity) is a tall order. Payne spent much of his talk going through the engineering that has made it possible, as well as the logistics of getting a state-of-the-art aircraft from Nevada to southern Argentina.
“It’s a space capsule with wings,” Payne remarked, succinctly describing the Perlan II craft. And when you see the porthole-style windows dotting the fuselage and inverted hatch configuration (which uses cabin pressure to its advantage), it looks that way.
In the images and videos Payne shared, the cockpit arrangement looks about as cramped as one might expect. There are a number of displays, including a tablet computer showing the view from a camera that’s mounted on the tail of the sailplane. Twenty-two Arduino mini-computers spread throughout the slim frame make it by far the most instrumented sailplane in history, Payne said.
And the decked-out nature of the aircraft shines a light on Perlan II’s companion mission of research. All of those computers and accompanying sensors are gathering information not just about the waves Perlan II is riding, but about the nature of the atmosphere that few aircraft experience.
In 2019, Payne reached around 76,000 feet in Perlan II. Since that season, record flights have been on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic and its limiting of international travel.
“With limited visibility, the cameras are useful for us while we’re up there,” Payne said. “And, in addition to further proving that these mountain waves exist, we’re trying to gather as much data as we can – wave location and strength, temperature, radiation, ozone density, particle collection. … We see temperature data, but the rest is recorded and beamed to the ground team.”
While the conditions in past years have proven viable for flights up to 90,000 feet, safety is a higher priority. Each time Payne and his team push the envelope, they need to test the effects of altitude and wind on the airframe. Record flights take more than five hours to complete, partly on account of such testing.
“Next time we go up, we won’t need to do test points until 76,000 feet, so we’ll get up there quicker,” Payne told UND Today. “Right now we have enough data to be confident, so we just need to find the weather and go for it.”
Different outlook on aviation
Kraus, sitting across from Payne throughout Wednesday’s webinar, said that it was a great event for UND and for students and faculty of UND Aerospace to hear about opportunities in aviation and atmospheric sciences that are different from the traditional warm and cold fronts that are more familiar in North Dakota.
“It was interesting to hear not only about custom-building and testing a new sailplane, but then taking it up as high as 76,000 feet,” Kraus remarked. “While pilots who fly over the Rocky Mountains are familiar with mountain waves, the extreme altitude mountain waves they’ve been investigating have been known about for only a few years.”
Kraus added that the pilot of the tow plane partly responsible for breaking records, Arne Vasenden, is a 1980 graduate of UND. It was Vasenden who suggested that Payne and the team come to North Dakota for the right conditions on their current assignment.
“Both Arne and Jim are great examples of how to turn a passion for flying into a lifetime career,” Kraus said.
Payne, for his part, has had a great experience in getting to know UND, he said.
“I’ve been extremely impressed. The facilities at the airport are incredibly well-kept,” Payne said. “I’m looking at the airplanes the students are flying, and I’ve been impressed by that too. … Everyone has gone out of their way to make us feel welcome and help us out, so that has been fantastic.”
He encouraged students to maintain their enthusiasm and well-being throughout their education as well as during their careers in the aviation industry. He doubly encouraged students to involve themselves in aviation outside of their normal jobs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Payne made a pitch for hopping in a glider from time to time.
“As the airline business becomes more automated, it’s harder to maintain stick-and-rudder skills as time goes on,” he said. “A lot of airline pilots have gone on to be very successful glider pilots, and you can be just as passionate about soaring as you are about flying airliners.”