The Physics
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Altitude of the Highest Airplane Flight

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Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
"Airplane." World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, 1992: 219, 223. "In 1963, the X-15 raised the altitude record to 67 miles (108 km)." 107,800 m
HL-10 Lifting Body Fact Sheet. NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. "First flown in 1959, the three X-15 aircraft made a total of 199 flights. Flight maximums of 354,200 ft in altitude and a speed of 4,520 mph were obtained." 107,900 m
Pilot Biographies: Joseph A. Walker. NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. "He [Joseph A. Walker] attained a speed of 4,104 mph (Mach 5.92) during a flight on June 27, 1962, and reached an altitude of 354,300 feet on August 22, 1963 (his last X-15 flight)." 108,000 m
X-15 Photo Gallery Contact Sheet, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. "Fastest speed with tanks was 4,520 mph (Mach 6.70) on flight 2-53-97 with pilot William Knight. Highest altitude was 354,200 ft (67 miles) on flight 3-22-36 with Joseph Walker." 107,900 m
Aviation milestones (1937-1989). Lindbergh. The American Experience. PBS. "1947 October -- Air Force Major Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, flying the Bell X-1 "Glamorous Glennis,"becomes the first pilot to fly faster than the speed of sound. The "Glamorous Glennis," named after Yeager's wife, reached a speed of 967 miles per hour, Mach 1.06, at an altitude of 70,140 feet. That was the fastest velocity and highest altitude reached by a manned aircraft up to that time." 21,379 m

An airplane is a heavier-than-air flying machine whose primary purposes are transport and research. A plane's wings, engines, and control surfaces enable it to fly. Control surfaces are movable sections of the wings and tail. The power of the engine(s) is responsible for pushing the plane through the air. As the plane moves, the airflow over the wings is deflected downward. This phenomenon is known as the Magnus effect, and is what keeps the plane in the air. It is a demonstration of Newton's third law, which states that when one object exerts a force on a second object, the second object exerts a force on the first that is equal in magnitude but opposite in direction. The downward force on the air produces an equal upward force on the wings.

Many science textbooks do not mention the Magnus effect, which is the correct explanation for why airplanes can fly. According to the authors of such textbooks, as the plane moves, the air that flows above the wings moves faster than the air that moves under the wings, and therefore has less pressure. This difference in pressure, called lift, is necessary to keep the plane in the air. This is an incorrect explanation because the difference in pressure alone is not enough to keep an aircraft suspended in the air.

Rocket planes are the fastest airplanes in existence. They can also can fly to the highest altitudes, often so high that they are on the verge of entering outer space. Rockets planes are used mainly for research. The X-15 holds both speed and altitude records. It was 15.24 meters long and had a 6.7-meter wingspan. The X-15 was developed specifically to conduct research in the fields of aerodynamics and aspects of high-speed and high-altitude flight. It made 199 flights between 1959 and 1968.

William Knight holds the record for achieving the fastest speed achieved by an aircraft: Mach 6.7 (6.7 times faster than the speed of sound or 2020 m/s). On August 22, 1963, Joseph A. Walker achieved the highest altitude ever gained by an airplane: 107,900 m (354,200 feet).

Dana Wollman -- 2001

Bibliographic Entry Result
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Helios Sets New Record! AeroVironment, 13 August 2001. "On August 13, 2001, Helios Prototype took off from Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii, and flew to a peak altitude of greater than 96,500 feet." > 29,400 m
"Wyatt was at the controls as Helios shattered the 80,201 foot altitude record set by AeroVironment's Pathfinder Plus in 1998. Then Greg took the controls as Helios broke the altitude record of just over 85,000 feet set by the Lockheed SR-71 in 1976. The final ascent to peak altitude was completed by Wyatt. A peak altitude over 96,500 feet was reached at about 4:10 PM and we stayed above 96,000 feet for over 40 minutes…. Also, it's interesting to note, that the aircraft climbed above 99% of the earth's atmosphere." 24,445 m
(Pathfinder Plus)
> 25,908 m
> 29,400 m

An unmanned, solar-powered airplane named "Helios" holds the world's record for greatest altitude achieved by a non-rocket powered aircraft, exceeding the previous record set in 1971 by an SR-71 "Blackbird"reconnaissance plane. It's interesting to note that the Blackbird is a supersonic aircraft powered by ram-jet engines while Helios is propeller-driven and cruises at 30 to 40 km/h (19 to 25 mph).

Helios is the prototype of ultrahigh altitude, autonomous aircraft that may one day be used on earth for remote sensing or telecommunication relay stations, replacing satellites at a tiny fraction of the cost. (The fixed landing gear consists of mountain bike and scooter wheels!) The atmosphere at Helios' maximum altitude of 30,000 m is also quite similar to the atmosphere near the surface of the planet Mars. Data gathered from Helios test flights will help NASA to design aircraft that will fly some day in the Martian atmosphere.

Editor's Supplement -- 2001

Bibliographic Entry Result
(w/surrounding text)
History of the 'Altitude above the earth's surface with or without maneuvres of the aerospacecraft' Record. Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (4 October 2004).
Altitude above the earth's surface with or without maneuvres
of the aerospacecraft: 112.01 km
Date of flight: 04/10/2004
Astronaut(s): Brian BINNIE (USA)
Course/place: Mojave, CA (USA)
Aerospacecraft: SpaceShipOne
Database ID 9881
102,900 m

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) is a self-appointed organization that certifies records in aeronautics and astronautics. The FAI does not recognize the X-15 altutide record claimed by NASA/USAF/USN. Instead, they cite SpaceShipOne built by Scaled Composites as the altitude champion.

Editor's Supplement -- 2008