Since middle school, Alec Guay ’13 has been fascinated with aviation. Now his career takes him to Patagonia to work on the Airbus Perlan II, a manned pressurized glider that flies at the very edge of the atmosphere.
Alec Guay’s career is soaring. Specifically, it’s reaching an altitude of 90,000 feet, bordering the vacuum of outer space, on a manned aircraft without an engine. Guay, a 2013 Williston graduate, is part of a team that is making aviation history. His recent trajectory can make you feel woefully pedestrian, stuck down here on terra firma.
This month, a sailplane called the Airbus Perlan II will take off from El Calafate, a city in Patagonia, Argentina. Its goal is sustained flight over 90,000 feet. That’s three times the altitude a commercial aircraft flies. Though Guay, 24, won’t be in the cockpit of the engineless aircraft, his contribution to the record-breaking project is a composite payload rack in the science bay aft of the two pilots, which will store and sample atmospheric data in small satellites called CubeSats, and will have wide-ranging impacts on a cross-section of scientific fields.
While a junior at Western New England University, Guay, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in mechanical engineering, got an internship with the Perlan Project. The project’s aim, he explained— not just to break the altitude record of 76,124 feet it set in 2018, but to perform atmospheric sampling in the stratosphere, a place where we once thought very little weather occurred—excited Guay.
“It’s an experimental plane,” Guay said of the pressurized glider, whose wingspan reaches 84 feet yet whose weight is only 1,700 pounds, roughly the weight of a VW Bus. The combination of size and weight are crucial factors in its ability to soar so high. “Nothing has ever been built like it before.”
The Perlan II, Guay explained, can reach such stratospheric heights due to a fascinating combination of topography, geography, wind speed, and a host of other factors.
To reach 90,000 feet, the glider will take advantage of a phenomenon known as stratospheric mountain waves. These rare air currents exist only with increasing wind as altitude rises, making the southern Andes a perfect spot. When they combine with the polar vortex, the cyclone of air that swirls around the poles at high altitude, the mountain waves can provide the Perlan II Glider with enough natural force to reach over 90,000 feet, higher than a SR-71 Blackbird, the current record holder for sustained flight at altitude.
Guay’s contribution to the aircraft will have lasting ramifications. “I modified and fabricated much of the Perlan’s science bay where we do atmospheric sampling and tests at altitude,” he explained. “These are primarily focused on radiation due to the lack of Ozone protection at altitude and also Ozone sampling.” Because the glider has no engine and therefore emits no pollution, the Perlan II can take clean air samples at specific points at altitude, unlike other research platforms.
“This is research that no other plane can perform because they pollute,” he said. Guay also worked with the glider upgrades over the years. These include heavy modification of the pilots’ rebreather systems, which are traditionally found in SCUBA diving, mining, and firefighting. The Perlan’s oxygen system recycles oxygen and filters out carbon dioxide so the glider can carry fewer oxygen bottles as well as keep the cabin pressurized at a much more comfortable level for the pilots, getting rid of costly pressurized space suits and timely maintenance between flights. Guay isn’t flying the plane, but “a sharp eye can find me running alongside of the Perlan’s wing on the runway during takeoff in my fashionable safety vest.”
He’s quick to point out that, despite the record-breaking spectacle of the project, what also drew him to it is Perlan’s mission of inspiring the next generation of pilots and engineers, “to help ignite a passion in STEM fields for students.”
In fact, the project, of which he’s been a part since 2016, awoke a love of his that first sprang up while in middle school at Williston, when he would sit in the backseat while his dad, Mark, piloted glider planes around his hometown of Westfield, Mass.
“I was hooked,” Guay said. “I thought [gliding] was the coolest thing.” A passing airplane forced our conversation to take a short pause, and he laughed. “I still think it’s the coolest thing.”
But the demands of high school at Williston, he said, meant that his passion for the planes took a backseat until college. When he heard about Perlan in 2016, Guay took his lifelong love for flying, added a dose of the Spanish lessons he learned while a student in Nat Simpson’s classes, and went full speed ahead.
The Perlan project, explained Guay, was looking for a graduate student for meteorology work. Though he was only a junior, he was sure he could succeed. The Spanish he learned with Simpson, and the confidence instilled in him during his six years at Williston, proved crucial to helping him during the months he’s spent at Perlan’s Argentina base.
“I just contacted the group and was persistent, and by the beginning of summer had the internship,” he said. He credits Simpson’s classes at Williston with making him stand out “more than just another basic engineering candidate.”
(Since graduating, Guay has run into Simpson twice, at Costco and Tandem; both times he said he’s thanked Simpson for the invaluable influence.)
Along with the determination and resolve he learned at Williston, Guay noted that the small class sizes, tight community, and teachers who were willing to go out of their way to help gave him the ability to simply talk to and engage people who are successful in their industry. Once he had his foot in the door, he said, the sky was the limit. And that confidence has already paid off; in April, Guay started a job in Boston as an application engineer with Airbus APWorks, a company that specializes in metallic 3D printing for the aerospace industry.
“I’m good at approaching people and having a conversation, but after all of the classes and work, the most important part is showing up ready to learn,” he said. “Williston gives you a good environment to pursue your passions beyond its great athletics and academics, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. I am thankful for that.”