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Building something crazy in Bend

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Ben Jacklet
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

By Ben Jacklet

Unfortunately for Central Oregon’s economy, there’s a lot less going on at the Bend Municipal Airport than there used to be. Cessna sputtered south to Mexico, Epic Aircraft crash-landed in China was sold in bankruptcy and the Desert Sun Helicopter Academy went down in a blaze of lawsuits. In spite of those disasters, amazing things are still happening in Bend’s aviation sector.

Much of that has to do with a gifted aerodynamicist named Greg Cole, president of Windward Performance.  Cole and his growing team at Windward recently sawed a hole in the wall of one of the seven hangars they occupy to make room for their newest project, a non-motorized glider designed to soar to 90,000 feet above sea level. That’s higher than any piloted plane, glider or balloon sailplane has ventured, with good reason. The air is dangerously thin and cold at that altitude, the winds potentially huge. The polar vortex, the cyclone-like wind force that would lift a glider pilot to such heights from a takeoff point near Patagonia in Argentina, has been known to reach speeds of 250 knots, and it accelerates as it climbs.

The Perlan project was one of several grandiose projects supported by the late Steve Fossett, the legendary sailor, pilot and financier who lost several fortunes on his way to making billions. Fossett used his earnings to back all sorts of radical adventures. At the time of his death in September 2007 he was financing initiatives to break the land speed record and to explore the Marianas Trench in a “flying submarine.” He was also supporting Cole’s work on the Perlan in Bend. The Perlan project stalled after Fossett’s death, but it is back on track now after a gift of $2 million from Dennis Tito, who made headlines as the world’s first “space tourist” when he joined Russian astronauts on a mission in 2001.

The Perlan, a glider designed to soar to 90,000 feetWith funding secured, Cole and his team are moving quickly to build a radically sleek, strong and light glider with a wingspan of 84 feet and a fully pressurized cabin (see the image to the left). Adding to the complexity of the design is the challenge of packing such a large, meticulously designed aircraft into a 40-foot shipping container, shipping it south to El Calafate, Argentina and then assembling it for flight.

A cynic might ask, Why bother? What’s the point of flying so high? What is to be gained from all the work and expense?

For one thing, there’s the knowledge that is gained only from attempting something never before accomplished — and building something never before built. Cole counts himself among the engineers and scientists of the world who are furious to see NASA scale back from space exploration and all of the benefits it has brought. In the tradition of NASA but on a far smaller scale, the Perlan will study meteorological systems from heights never before attained, possibly resulting in new knowledge about the powerful workings of the polar vortex.

Then there is the inherent value of the adventure itself.  “The inspiration part can’t be overlooked,” says Cole. “Just to do something crazy. Just to show the younger generation you can do something audacious. We’ll be practically going into space — without a rocket.”

Sign me up — in principle, anyhow. I love the spirit of the Perlan project, and I love that this insanely brilliant aircraft is being designed and built in Oregon.

Ben Jacklet is managing editor for Oregon Business.

 

Comments   

 
Alton Marsh
0 #1 No crash landing for EpicAlton Marsh 2011-05-19 13:14:03
Actually Epic did not crash land in China. China got a licensing agreement to sell the aircraft mostly in China, but the company is still flying under American leadership with most of the world as its market--except China.
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David Temple
0 #2 A very small correctionDavid Temple 2011-05-19 13:26:16
On November 20, 1965 an A-12 Blackbird exceeded Mach 3.2 and a sustained altitude of 90,000 feet, so it's been done at least once.
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Dave Leedom
0 #3 Another correctionDave Leedom 2011-05-19 14:07:00
Joseph Kittinger jumped from a balloon @ 102,800' back in 1960. Not that the glider project is not impressive but the grandiose statements like "That’s higher than any piloted plane, glider or balloon has ventured..." shows little expertise in aviation history. I didn't mention the Streak Eagle F-15 which hit 102K and numerous X planes like the X-15 which hit ~50 miles of altitude.
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John H. Bisscheroux
0 #4 Another correctionJohn H. Bisscheroux 2011-05-19 14:22:42
Nit picking aside, to fly a GLIDER to that height and solve the inherent structural,
temperature and pressurization problems is a very special and novel project.
As a glider pilot I can identify with this, having just once reached a height of
"only" 21,500 feet !
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Ed Warnock, CEO, The Perlan Project
0 #5 Ed Warnock, CEO, The Perlan Project 2011-05-19 20:43:54
From Wikipedia: The SR-71's official altitude record - "The SR-71 was the world's fastest and highest-flying operational manned aircraft throughout its career. On 28 July 1976, SR-71 serial number 61-7962 broke the world record for its class: an "absolute altitude record" of 85,069 feet (25,929 m). Several aircraft exceeded this altitude in zoom climbs but not in sustained flight.[68] That same day SR-71, serial number 61-7958 set an absolute speed record of 1,905.81 knots (2,193.2 mph; 3,529.6 km/h)."

Manned aircraft have gone higher, but they were in zoom climbs and could not sustain level flight. The Perlan glider being built in Bend would set a new world altitude record at 90,000 feet for "manned, wing borne,sustained level flight."
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Alex Kovnat
0 #6 90,000 ft. sailplaneAlex Kovnat 2011-05-20 18:49:26
I am reminded of the old (but still flying operational missions, last I heard) U-2 aircraft.
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