More Than a Record: Posted 4/26/2021
More Than a Record:
What Was Left Undone
A record is just a number, an entry in a ledger: it sets the historic background for the state of aviation. The Perlan flight of 2 September 2018 placed in an entirely separate category, not a chance outlier like most records, but the result of a confluence of several unusual
circumstances. The significance of that flight stands not only in what was accomplished–a gee whiz altitude record for sure–but more importantly, in what was left undone. The Perlan team was, by 2018, very capable of continuing development of the whole Perlan system, now a safe and effective one. Jim Payne had become a major reservoir of the team’s
understanding of exploration into a new realm of flight. It came from Jim’s years as a working test pilot and manager at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base. Being at Edwards changed most of us; we became far more cautious and skeptical in the execution of
our work; many times good luck more than good sense had separated us from so many colleagues; we often discovered that we knew so much less than we thought we did.
So, on September 2, 2018 Jim found himself a lot higher and climbing a lot faster than he expected, and in territory where the steps of the envelope expansion that the team had planned had reached their limit. Most pilots would have said, “Yippee! I think that we can go to 90,000 or more right now!” But Jim’s reasoning was, “Wait a minute here. I wasn’t ready for this, my job now is to tiptoe back to safe territory, get back to the ground and study all we can about this.”
Jim got a glimpse of the vista of opportunity, but the magnitude of the moment required that this pilot approach the situation with humility; not with the instruction manual, but with the heavy weight of lived experiences. What Jim did not do that day was crucial to the continued
constructive progress of the mission. If he had reached 90,000ft, it would have moved the achievement into the category of “Ho, hum; been there, done that,” and we would have missed those opportunities to backfill with sound research much of the territory that would have been bypassed. That epochal flight was separated from a dazzling number by Jim’s
instinct driven demand that he, and not The Fates, control what they would do.
The table is now set for the Perlan team not only to put up more dazzling gee whiz numbers, but, along the way, to do meaningful and supportable research to further the collective understanding of high altitude flight and the atmospheric phenomena that drive our planet’s weather.
Einar Enevoldson and Jim Payne