From Oregon to space: High altitude glider tests planned
September 12, 2015
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  • The sky is hardly the limit for the latest aviation project at the Redmond Airport.


    Next week, the Perlan 2, an experimental glider that aims to eventually go more than 90,000 feet in the air, will make its initial test flight at the Redmond Airport. The low-altitude flight — the sailplane will run through a series of checks approximately 5,000 feet off the ground — will be the first in-air test for the glider, which later hopes to shatter the fixed-wing aircraft altitude record of 50,722 feet set by Perlan Project founder Einar Enevoldson and his co-pilot and noted adventurer Steve Fossett in 2006.


    “It’s going to be a milestone in aviation history,” boasted Doug Perrenod, the project coordinator for the Perlan 2 launch. “This glider is going to go higher than any other fixed-wing aircraft with a pilot in it. That includes the Air Force’s U-2 (spy plane). It really will be the edge of space.”


    The dream of Enevoldson, a former NASA test pilot, the Perlan Project looks to build a glider that can travel to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere. The Perlan 2, an 1,800-pound glider with an 84-foot wingspan, will be towed into the air like a traditional glider, but will then ride high altitude mountain waves in its later flights when it attempts to go beyond 50,000 feet.


    “Before, there’s never been a glider that could sustain pilots that high,” Perrenod said. “Aircrafts that go into higher altitudes have pressurized systems. Commercial aircrafts, for example, pump air into their planes for their crew and passengers.


    “Gliders don’t have engines, though,” Perrenod added. “What glider pilots have discovered at high altitudes is that they needed some way to pressurize the cockpit.”


    The Perlan Project developed its own life-support system for its high-altitude flights, a “re-breather” system similar to underwater diving.


    “This is not an off-the-shelf thing,” Perrenod added. “We’ve taken some different components and ideas and customized them for our own application. Almost everything from nose to tail (on the glider) is new technology. If we accomplish everything we’re trying to do, this thing will wind up in the Smithsonian.”


    Pressurizing the Perlan 2’s cockpit gives it a unique look among gliders, Perrenod says.


    “It resembles the private spaceships built by Virgin Galactic,” Perrenod added. “We pressurized the cockpit area, giving it windows instead of the big conventional bubble on most gliders. It’s basically a spaceship with wings.”


    The Redmond Airport landed Perlan 2’s inaugural flight in large part because of the involvement of two Central Oregon companies in the glider’s production. Bend’s Windward Performance built most of the glider and RDD of Redmond put together those pieces and invented others when the technology wasn’t there.


    “Our role was basically final assembly construction of the aircraft,” said Eric Schmidlin, RDD’s Perlan program manager. “Probably 90 percent of the parts had been fabricated. We went through and inspected them and assembled them into the final aircraft.”


    With RDD’s location at the Redmond Airport, Central Oregon’s only commercial airfield was a logical place for Perlan 2’s maiden voyage.


    “The pilot will do some minor controllability checks and be in constant contact with the (air traffic control) tower,” Perrenod said. “He’ll test some different maneuvers, test the air brakes and after 20 minutes or so be back on the ground.”


    If all goes well in Redmond, where Perlan 2 might make as many as 20 flights at the airport over the next two months, the Perlan Project will move to Nevada in December to do a series of higher altitude tests — “I think we’ll get well over 50,000 feet in flying tests in January and February,” Perrenod says — and eventually to Argentina, possibly around March or April 2016, to take a shot at 90,000 feet.


    “We may not get it done the first day or the first week,” Perrenod said. “It took (Enevoldson) and (Fossett) a few years to get to the altitude they did. It was one success against several failures. A lot of it depends on how well this first flight goes.”


    The Perlan 2’s takeoff Wednesday expects to be boon for Central Oregon’s growing aviation industry. The Discovery Channel will be on hand for the glider’s first flight — the network hopes to eventually make a documentary about the Perlan Project, Perrenod says — and Red Bull also has an interest in the program.


    “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Schmidlin said of working on the Perlan Project. “It’s fantastic. . And having the first flight here, it certainly highlights what’s going on in Central Oregon and helps make people more aware of the knowledge base and skill set we have here.”