Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Perlan Project

A former test pilot and a group of engineers are hoping to take a pressurized glider to FL900

I didn't learn to fly in gliders, but soaring was an early part of my training. I earned my "Commercial Sailplane—Air Tow" rating in 1970 at El Mirage, Calif., though I never did figure out what to do with a commercial glider rating. ("Briegleb Flight 14 leaving from Gate 1 nonstop from El Mirage, Calif., to El Mirage, Calif.")

Gliders introduced me to a whole new world of flying, but once I was licensed, it was tough to log additional hours, no matter how much I loved it. El Mirage Dry Lake is about 70 miles from my home, so I first had to fly there in order to fly gliders, then enjoy a few tows to altitude in the Blanik, jump back in my Bellanca and fly home, an expensive and time-consuming process. Throw in a few supplemental flights in various sailplanes in the intervening 40 years, and I have probably only about 40 hours of glider time.

But those 40 hours were universally great fun, making me wonder why no one ever wrote a book titled Zen and The Art of Flying Sailplanes.

If you live in an urban area (and they don't get much more urban than the Los Angeles Basin), learning to fly sailplanes can be a difficult task. Soaring often is regarded as more of an art than a science, and its proponents frequently analogize it to sailing versus powerboating. Practitioners of the sport sometimes regard it as the holy grail of flying.

My entry-level soaring experience was confined to El Mirage Airport at El Mirage Dry Lake, near Edwards AFB, both before and after I was licensed. I was flying a Czechoslovakian Blanik L-13, an all-metal sailplane with a glide ratio of 28 to 1. That's about three times more efficient than the L/D of most powered general aviation aircraft and seven times better than the Space Shuttle's best effort, but it's not even close to high performance in sailplane terms. Some of the best competition sailplanes fly with glide ratios as high as 70 to 1 or more. That's 70 feet forward for every foot of altitude loss.

Fortunately, the dry lake provided a hedge for students who can't manage their altitude properly. The huge, wide, flat expanse of dry dirt provides a universe of landing sites, and the tow plane can usually land and tow you home in a few minutes.


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