Lundquist College of Business instructor Ed Warnock leads a double life. When he isn’t busy teaching strategy and entrepreneurship to the professionals earning their degrees at the Oregon Executive MBA in Portland, Warnock pursues other lofty goals in his role as CEO of the non-profit Perlan Project.
Each summer, when most Oregonians are enjoying the season’s sun and warmth, Warnock heads back into winter, journeying to the southernmost tip of Argentina to watch as the Perlan Project team sends an engineless airplane—a glider—to record-breaking heights above the Andes.
With its carbon fiber glider designed in Bend and manufactured in Redmond, and many of its team members based in the state, the Perlan Project is in many ways a quintessentially Oregonian project. But between its Argentinian launching pad, the support it currently receives from European aerospace corporation Airbus, the scientific research projects it facilitates, and the students all over the world whose lives it touches, it is also a truly international initiative.
The Perlan story starts with another Oregonian, Einar Enevoldson. A NASA test pilot who flew gliders recreationally, Enevoldson recognized that the waves over the wintertime North Pole and South Pole might just be strong enough to power a glider to unheard-of elevations.
Together with businessman adventurer Steve Fossett, Enevoldson tested this theory, eventually breaking the altitude record for gliders by flying the Perlan 1 research glider to 50,722 feet in 2006. To put that in perspective, commercial flights typically fly at an altitude between 31,000 and 38,000 feet. The Perlan 1 glider is now on permanent display at the Seattle Museum of Flight.
Several years after this initial achievement, Warnock joined the project as its CEO. One of his first moves was to recruit an Oregon Executive MBA alumnus—Preston Michie, MBA ’00—to help the Perlan Project gain tax-exempt status as a 501 (c)(3) organization.
With an undergraduate degree in chemistry and a background working as a lawyer in the Bonneville Power Administration's Office of General Counsel, Michie was immediately intrigued when Warnock pitched the project.
“I said, 'Okay, I’ll do this, but I get to sit on the board and I get to go to Argentina,'” said Michie.
Getting up close and personal with a high-flying glider wasn’t anything that Michie expected when he started at the Oregon Executive MBA in 1998, but he has found it to be a highly rewarding part of his professional life.
“That was a pretty special day, to watch that plane—which had been in our imaginations for years—actually fly,” said Michie, who now sits on the Perlan Project board and serves as its general counsel.
Because the Perlan glider can reach the highest altitudes without producing any emissions, it is the perfect vehicle for studying climate change and measuring ozone depletion, among other topics. The team provides the data it collects to scientists all over the world.
Team Perlan makes a point of paying it forward to the next generation. Team members visit classrooms to describe the project’s work. They also partner with universities and high schools around the United States and the world.
“We try to get students excited about exploration, excited about science, and excited about the planet they live on,” said Warnock.
Although not terribly well known in Oregon, the project has achieved multiple recognitions in aviation circles. In 2018, Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society awarded a bronze medal to the Perlan team for exploring high-altitude aerodynamics and performing research in near space.
2018 was also the year that the Perlan 2 glider broke another record, achieving the world's highest subsonic human flight in a winged aircraft by soaring to 76,124 feet above sea level.
What’s next for the high-flying glider and the team behind it? Nothing less than breaking the altitude record of 85,000 feet above sea level set by the SR-71 Blackbird.
“I have to admit we grin from ear to ear when we think we’re going to knock the SR-71 of its altitude perch—but we want to do it with no engine at all, through an organization run by a bunch of volunteers,” said Warnock.
Airbus photo by James Darcy, copyright Airbus 2019.