Two pilots have soared to 76,124ft (23, 203 meters) in a groundbreaking flight that saw an engineless aircraft ride atmospheric waves to soar over Earth, where the altitude is so high that human blood boils unless protected.
The Airbus Perlan Mission II broke its third record for human flight in a winged aircraft this year, after first reaching 62,000ft and then 65,605ft on Wednesday.
The Perlan 2 and pilots Jim Payne and Miguel Iturmendi then went on to beat the maximum recorded altitude of the US Air Force’s 73,737ft, by climbing to 76,124ft over Patagonia, Argentina on Sunday.
The engineless Perlan 2 rode atmospheric pressure waves – rising air currents behind mountains that are strengthened by the polar vortex – in order to reach such heights.
This atmospheric occurrence is only found in a few places around the world, including the Andes mountains in Argentina, and for just a few weeks each year, the currents can rise to an altitude of 100,000ft.
The groundbreaking flight crossed the Armstrong line – the point in the atmosphere where a human’s blood will boil unless its protected.
The height reached by the Perlan is about three miles above the highest altitude commercial pilots ever reach. Payne told the Las Vegas Review Journal that from that vantage point, the curve of the Earth is visible, and the sky is “starting to get dark.”
The aircraft was towed to about 40,000ft by a special high-altitude plane before it was released to catch the stratospheric waves.
The Perlan 2 was designed to reach 90,000ft, the edge of space, and the crew want to keep reaching for greater heights. The current operation will end on September 15, and the pilots hope to keep pushing the boundaries of altitude until then.
The glider contains a special closed-loop system for the pilots to breathe pure oxygen, and has a pressurized cabin. It also has an emergency parachute that can bring the craft safely back to the ground if necessary.