Can an Airplane be Sexy?
A ten-year-old James Darcy pondered the idea as his father described the venerable P-51 Mustang, “Cadillac of the Skies.” For a boy, such an adjective was seemingly abstract; James remembers not fully understanding how that word could be used to describe an inanimate object. While he spent time building lots of cool looking plastic scale models, he certainly wouldn’t say that any of them were sexy.
Fast forward several years, and Darcy found himself following the airport perimeter road of NAS Patuxent River after interviewing for a job there. He recounts the moment he came to a stop sign at which surface vehicles were required to yield to taxiing aircraft. In that instant, he watched in amazement as an F/A-18 Hornet slowly passed in front of him, the pilot casually waving hello. It was likely then that Darcy realized: Yes! Airplanes can be sexy!
An Expert on Aspect Ratio
As a college student, James Darcy was a Yeager Scholar; part of a prestigious program which later afforded him the access to interview General Chuck Yeager at the Air and Space Museum for the 50th anniversary of the breaking of the sound barrier. He subsequently had the chance to interview a lady who had witnessed the Wright Flyer when she was a child. These experiences dovetailed nicely with what was to come.
After starting his career as a photojournalist for an Army newspaper, his journey led to another opportunity with the Navy at NAS Patuxent River. “I became a public affairs officer for various programs and eventually wound up as head of public affairs at the Naval Air Warfare Aircraft Division,” he says. “In 2009, I left to join what was at the time EADS North America, which has morphed into Airbus.”
Along the way, Darcy has had the good fortune to be involved with many awesome aircraft programs – from Navy X-Planes, V-22 Osprey, F/A-18 Super Hornet and several in between. Though he remains humble, he has become a published world-class photographer who now heads external communications for Airbus Americas. Today, he is part of the team that’s flying a glider into the upper atmosphere: Airbus Perlan Mission II.
For many men and women, much of the workday is spent in back-to-back meetings – stuck in a stuffy office building, tied to the phone and computer. While Darcy is no stranger to this environment, he figures 11 months of the office life each year is enough. After that, he’s off to Argentina to do the work that truly speaks to him – shooting the Perlan II glider from an Airbus H130 helicopter in lower than frigid temperatures.
The origins of Perlan Project go back almost 30 years as a study in high altitude atmospheric wave behavior. In 2006, legendary pilots Steve Fossett and Einar Enevoldson flew the Perlan I glider to a record altitude of 50,722 feet over El Calafate, Argentina. Although Fossett passed away in 2007, the mission continued. With the addition of retired Air Force test pilot Jim Payne, the previous record was recently shattered by the team in 2018 when they reached a new altitude of 76,124 feet. They soon hope to reach 90,000 feet (the service ceiling of the aircraft) and beyond.
With the help of a very special tow plane, a Grob Egrett, the pressurized Perlan is carried higher than 40,000 feet. That altitude is high enough for the glider pilots to catch the stratospheric wave and continue their climb to record heights. To breathe, the pilots utilize a closed-loop oxygen rebreather system that provides oxygen and removes CO2, allowing for flight durations over seven hours when the conditions are right.
Close Calls and Frostbitten Digits
Imagine sticking your hand out of the car window driving down the freeway during the winter. That’s cold, right? Well, Darcy is exposed to frigid temps at high altitude in an exposed helicopter cabin for much longer periods of time. The rotor wash and wind-chill alone can be truly hazardous to one’s health.
To protect against the elements, Darcy wears a bulky Air Force cold weather flight suit. “The biggest problem is my hands. I can’t wear heavy gloves because I need the manual dexterity,” he says. This once led to a case of frostbite in his right hand. “It just swelled up like a balloon.”
Aside from the blistering cold, the mere fact that much of the work is done from an open-door environment requires that all of Darcy’s gear be tethered to prevent damage or injury. This includes Darcy himself, who explains that he chooses to use a harness that can be released on the front of his body to prevent confusion in the case of a mishap. If things go wrong, he has a better chance of being able to unhook and get free.
An Aerial Ballet
Everything is briefed. The flight team and photography ship discuss all aspects of the mission before launching and the photography sequence becomes something of an aerial ballet. “For shooting, typically we chase them when they’re on tow up to about 12,000 feet” and then part ways and return to land while the glider continues its climb, reports Darcy. The glider can be airborne for six or more hours while the rest of the team monitors progress from the ground.
“When [the glider is] on the way back down we’ll relaunch the helicopter and orbit over a rendezvous point at [around] 10,000 to 12,000 feet.” He continues, “We’ll wait until they come down, start talking to them, we’ll get visual and then we’ll join up on them.”
Darcy states that in order to get a particular shot of Perlan, it may be necessary to fly divergent flight paths for a period of time then have the glider fly back towards the photo ship at the desired angle with the right lighting and backdrop. Depending on how much oxygen and battery the glider has remaining, dives, swoops, and break turns can all be on the menu. Every maneuver is done within safety limits that are defined before the flight ever gets airborne.
“We always keep [the helicopter] in a position where the glider [with its limited visibility] can be highly unpredictable and it’s not going to be a problem,” he says. “Basically, we give [Perlan] a maneuvering envelope where they know we’re not going to conflict.”
Safety First and Safety Last
“We pre-brief everything, so there should be no surprises,” he says. The team has a dynamic built around open communication and trust, where if someone asks for something outside of another’s comfort zone or the pre-briefed parameters, people aren’t afraid to speak up about it. The relationship is very important and it all ties together in the pre-flight and post-flight briefings. Darcy is clear with his teammates that it’s his job to ask for things and the pilots’ job to deny his request if it’s unsafe. “If I ask [the helicopter pilot] to get closer, and it’s not safe to get closer, [the pilots] will tell me that.”
For every Perlan flight, there’s a pre-brief and a debrief. Jim Payne, chief pilot of the Perlan II typically leads those briefings, according to Darcy. As a former test pilot, the briefings are part of the culture that Payne brings to the mission. “It tends to be a more formal process. A good debrief is one where everyone has something that they can say they would do a little differently the next time,” Darcy explains. If you come down from a flight and say to yourself, “everything was good,” you’re not learning from the debrief.
A Blend of Dread and Excitement
After capturing the glider’s descent back to Earth, the Darcy notes the mix of emotion that overcomes him as he rushes to review his shots. “Usually, as the helicopter is shutting down, I start to go through the images on the camera and it’s one part dread to ten parts excitement when you start to see decent shots and you know you got it.”
Later in the evening, he will sort through the images from the day’s mission and disseminate them according to the current press release and social media timelines. “We have this opportunity during a finite period of time during the year but we want to keep information about the program flowing during the course of the year,” says Darcy.
You can follow James Darcy on Instagram here.
To learn more about the Perlan Project, click here.
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