Oct 16, 2013
by JEFF SPRY CBN Feature Writer
Attempting to test fate and hug the heavens, an exotic-material high altitude sailplane named Perlan 2 is being prepped for a dance with destiny in 2015 as it attempts to set a world’s record amid the mysterious and turbulent realm of the Earth’s elusive Polar Vortex.
This isn’t some sci-fi fantasy cooked up by Hollywood dream teams, it’s actually happening right here in our own backyard, as Windward Performance of Bend is carefully crafting the sleek super-glider in a non-descript warehouse in the High Desert.
Windward specializes in expert composite design and fabrication for the aerospace industry. Founded in 1999 by visionary aircraft engineer Greg Cole, they enjoy a sterling reputation for innovative small aircraft design, manufacturing and prototyping.
The Perlan Project was started by research pilot Einar Enevoldson in 1992 after researching stratospheric mountain waves. Famed adventurer and balloonist Steve Fossett joined the project in 1999. A Perlan 1 glider, piloted by Fossett and Enevoldson, set world records for distance and altitude high over the Andes in 2006 as a prelude to the final test.
Cole and Windward Performance became involved in the amazing Perlan Project in 2005.
“We felt we were the best suited in the world to build this aircraft,” he said. “We’re working in some extremely adventurous areas, especially when it comes to sailplanes. I’d worked for years with Lancair in Redmond on their Columbia airplane and other kit planes and was familiar with high altitude design.”
With an 82-foot wingspan, the two-seat Perlan 2 will weigh in at a trim 1,800 pounds, fully loaded with crew and oxygen.
Australian pilot Morgan Sandercock is Perlan’s project manager and chief cheerleader since 2009.
“It was Fossett’s idea to split the project into two stages, giving it a lower risk of failure and allowing the team to learn as they went along,” he said. “Through contacts with NASA they were able to borrow a pair of full-pressure space suits to use in the first mission. They tried for several years to access the polar vortex which gives aircraft this high altitude wave lift, then moved on to Argentina. It was basically their second flight over Patagonia testing the suits when they broke the record at 50,000 feet.”
Fossett and Enevoldson began work on the Stage 2 glider and looked all over the world for a suitable designer and found Greg Cole here in Bend in early 2007.
Fossett passed away September 3, 2007 after a tragic accident in a small plane over the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
“I came in and offered funds to allow them to build half of it and came out from Australia to help Greg create the glider,” said Sandercock. “I learned what a nice place Bend was and in 2010 we ensured major funding from Dennis Tito, the guy famous for being the first private astronaut who flew to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz rocket by paying them $20 million.”
Tito remains a major investor in the Perlan 2 project and has visited the team at Windward a many times over the past years.
“With Dennis’ funding, everything really kicked into high gear and we were able to hire more employees. We got all the wing skins, fuselage skins and many of the carbon-fiber components finished.”
One of the major reasons Enevoldson and Fossett chose Cole was his expertise and familiarity with pre-preg material, a process where carbon cloth in already impregnated with the epoxy resin.
“Absolutely the coolest damn thing, more than the average person can understand, are the hazards and challenges of flying at this height,” said Cole. “If we succeed, if the plane performs to our calculations and we work through all these things needed to keep the pilots alive, we’ll be the highest flying manned aircraft in history, higher than the U-2 or the SR-71 Blackbird.”
From the start, Fossett wanted the project to have an educational and inspirational component to it.
“I think making things exciting spurs learning,” Cole said. “We will have failed if we don’t leverage this project into other areas of education and learning like meteorology, climatology and aerodynamics. Everything on this plane is built from scratch. We have some fantastic goals and there is no way to test this plane other than fly it in actual conditions.”
Along with Cole, Sandercock continues to push forward and devote countless hours of energy and inspiration.
With the 2015 goal still set, the Perlan team has their fingers crossed, wishing on the stars above for good fate and funding fortune in bringing this project to its conclusion.
“We’re looking for more funding right now for the final stage and we’re starting a crowd-funding site soon so people can go to our website and sign up for the newsletter and we’ll alert them when we get that publicity phase going.”
After testing in 2014/15 in Bend and the Sierras, the sailplane will eventually launch during the southern spring in Argentina in 2015, where the Perlan 2 will be towed up to an altitude of 8-10K feet, then catch the polar vortex wave lift up into the stratosphere.
“We’re looking at a total flight of about six hours from takeoff to landing,” Sandercock said. “One of the nice things about gliding is that you do it in daylight and you’re home in time for dinner. Temperatures up there dip to a hundred below zero and winds reach 200 miles-per-hour once inside that polar vortex.”
What aspect of this endeavor strikes Sandercock most intensely? “It’s all about man’s domination over machines and exploration of what exists in the world,” he said. “There’s still places people haven’t been and this part of the stratosphere is one of them. Gliding is interesting, you’re strapped down and the canopy is closed but once you’re up there flying, the glider becomes your body. During one of my longest flights I watched a spider build a web between my knee and the instrument panel.”
Until then, Cole patiently proceeds with the details and delays of the Perlan Project with reserved optimism.
”Fossett wanted to fly higher than any man had flown before,” said Cole. “That was his dream for Perlan. We’ve made a lot of progress and I think we’re finally caught up financially. We hope people will follow our adventure and participate in the wonder of exploration.”
Windward Performance LLC
63008 Powell Butte Hwy, Bend
CEO: Greg Cole
No. Employees: 28
Year Established: 1999
Product/Service: Aerospace products, glider and sailplane design and manufacturing.