On the cold steppes of Patagonia, volunteers for the Perlan Project’s custom-built glider are soaring into the stratosphere for climate change research.
When the project pilots for this zero-emissions glider plane needed to stay healthy during southern Argentina’s brutal winter months, they turned to the same principles that empowered cutting edge stratospheric research – clean air.
Without IQAir’s HealthPro Plus air purifier safeguarding the air quality, “I'm not sure I would have gone,” said Jackie Payne, the Perlan Project’s chief of logistics and operations. “I'm that strong about my opinion on what it was going to take to stay healthy in a very tiny, enclosed room with twenty people on a team.”
Her concerns were justified, given the Perlan Project’s aspirations and extreme challenges.
Science research intersects with a lofty goal
Each year, volunteers for the not-for-profit Perlan Project assemble in El Calafate, Argentina over the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months. It’s when flight conditions in Patagonia are ideal for the project’s Perlan 2 glider; stratospheric waves are energized on the outer boundary of the polar vortex that is observed in that region only for a few winter days of the year.
Stratospheric waves can be generated when the polar vortex interacts with mountain waves in the troposphere. On occasion, these waves extend to 100,000 feet and can even climb into the atmosphere.
The Perlan Project has already made great strides in scientific research and broken aeronautic records. First, the project proved that stratospheric waves exist; it had previously been believed that weather only occurred below a smooth stratosphere.
Alongside other aeronautical research, the Perlan 2 glider cleanly samples pollutants found in the stratosphere and conducts climate research by observing how stratospheric waves impact the planet.
For instance, in 2019, the Perlan Project observed a sudden stratospheric event that preceded the catastrophic fire season in Australia, highlighting a significant correlation between stratospheric conditions and extreme weather patterns.
In the process, the team has set records eleven times for the highest soaring flights ever. The most recent record, set in 2018, witnessed Chief Pilot Jim Payne and Pilot Tim Gardner bring the Perlan 2 glider to a high point at just above 76,000 feet pressure altitude (1).
Impressive as that achievement may be, they’re not done yet. The project hopes to attain a new record by climbing to 90,000 feet – the highest-flying wing-borne aircraft flight ever.
For these reasons, Perlan must operate in some of the world’s cleanest skies and, as it turns out, in a facility with clean air.
Returning to the skies after the pandemic
The Perlan Project initially had to miss the 2020 flying season due to the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. The project’s shutdown lasted three years as gradual vaccination discovery and rollouts, travel restrictions, and international shipping disruptions lingered.
Taking precautions against COVID-19 infection wasn’t the project’s only health concern in 2023. If volunteers contracted the seasonal flu, it threatened to compound delays for the project, which had already been on hold.
Every team member was essential to the project’s success. “When anybody is isolated or quarantined for health reasons, then we lose their input,” Jackie said. “Each person on the team has a primary responsibility and always serves as a secondary backup - some of us serve tertiary roles as well. If one person is down with COVID-19 infection or the flu, how do we fill in that gap with other volunteers?”
Pilots are particularly vulnerable to illness. “When you're flying, a respiratory cold can ground your pilots because these guys are wearing pressurized masks,” Jackie explained.
Flying while sick is never advisable or safe. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, illness can severely impair pilot performance through impaired judgement, reduced alertness and memory, and the ability to perform calculations (2). Even medication taken to control symptoms could cause impairment.
Knowing that, Jackie and her teammates “were trying our best to minimize any cross-contamination, spreading illness from team member to team member.”
HealthPro Plus: A solid foundation for medical-grade filtration
Jackie felt that their HealthPro Plus air purifier provided a “solid foundation” for staying healthy and served as a key piece of research equipment.
It was particularly vital that Jim Payne, who continued in his role as the Perlan Project’s chief pilot, not fall ill during the season. “We had three co-pilots. All three of them fell ill at one time or another,” Jackie said.
At the start of the project, Jackie positioned the HealthPro Plus next to Jim’s desk. It was present and running next to him whenever he wasn’t flying. She believes the constant flow of clean air in Jim’s breathing space was a decisive factor in keeping him healthy.
“He never got sick,” she said.
“You do everything you can to improve the odds for success during the season. And he was the one pilot who did not get sick.”
She wasn’t alone in relying on the project’s trusty room air purifier throughout the season. “We have two separate rooms for conducting meetings in. There was always a demand for the air purifier.”
“If Jim was flying, people would ask, ‘can we put the HealthPro Plus in our room?’ And it would be rolled over to the next room for use.”
The HealthPro Plus stationed next to Jim Payne’s desk in El Calafate, Argentina. Source: IQAir.
Natural, clean air in the stratosphere gave the Perlan Projects volunteers an environment that beckons for further research. Healthy, clean air in their working space helped keep the project in the air during a challenging season.
The partnership between IQAir and the Perlan Project demonstrated how pristine air can strengthen any endeavor. With an assist from clean air technology, the Perlan Project enjoyed a successful trip that both furthered climate science and supported pushing the boundaries of aerospace achievement.
"The HealthPro Plus was vital,” Jackie said. “It was like another team member, keeping our air clean, helping us stay healthy and focused on our mission."