July 1, 2010

Night Flight For Solar Plane Delayed

A solar-powered plane set to fly through the night Thursday was grounded after a technical glitch was found, leaving the Solar Impulse crew with just weeks to find perfect weather for the flight.

"We are under stress and we hope everything will work," said Bertrand Piccard, the venture's founder and previously the first balloonist to circumnavigate the globe.

Solar Impulse aborted its plans for the historic 25-hour flight just an hour before take off by pilot Andre Borschberg from a military airbase in western Switzerland.

"It's a big disappointment for us," the Swiss adventurer explained, as gloomy faced team members looked on.

"Up to now I have to say in seven years we had no setbacks, everything went very well," he added. "A few days ago we were discussing until when everything will go very well; well, the answer is, it was yesterday evening."

Members of the multinational team of pilots and engineers said that attempts to repair the problem were dashed when a part rushed in from Germany overnight proved to be incompatible with the custom-made aircraft.

They said that it could be solved by next week.

The single seater decorated with solar panels has completed 10 test flights since it first hopped along a runway seven months ago.

The plane stayed aloft for 14 hours in daylight just days ago during a test flight.

Piccard said that he was not sure when they would be able to make the next round-the-clock bid. Solar Impulse might have to wait until next year for another attempt.

"I hope it will be as soon as possible because the window to make the flight will end by the end of July, beginning of August," said the Swiss explorer.

Mission control coordinator Brian Jones, who accomplished the first circumnavigation of the globe in the Orbiter balloon with Piccard, told AFP: "The window of opportunity is the amount of sunlight we have."

The plane is designed to store enough energy in its batteries while it is aloft during the daytime.

The historic bid is being monitored by the International Aeronautical Federation (FIA), which oversees official flying records.

"The testing of this little box of electrics, as small as my mobile phone, has not gone well, I regret to report," Jones told AFP.

"There is always a bright side of course and at least now I can go and find some breakfast," he quipped on his Solar Impulse blog.

Piccard and his crew warned that more setbacks could ensue as they try to break new ground for solar energy and aviation.

The night flight is a crucial step in the venture's bid for the aviator's dream of perpetual flight, as well as being able to demonstrate the broader value of solar technology.

The experience will also help to influence the development of a bigger version of the aircraft designed to fly across continents and around the world in 2013 and 2014.

"We're constantly pushing the envelope in technology, we're constantly inventing things," Jones explained.

"Everything is very controlled here, we won't go until we know it will all work. This is just a phase in a very long project," the British balloonist added.


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