July 8, 2010

Solar Powered Plane Makes History

A solar-powered aircraft made the history books on Thursday after flying for 26 hours using the sun's energy alone.

The experimental Solar Impulse aircraft landed at Payerne airbase in western Switzerland about three hours after daybreak.

"It's the first time ever that a solar airplane has flown through the night," said team chief Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss adventurer who masterminded the project.

"That was the moment that proved the mission was successful, we made it," said Piccard, who achieved the first round-the-world balloon flight in 1999 and whose father and grandfather both broke height and depth records.

Andre Borschberg, the plane's pilot, told AFP that he felt like he was "floating" after sitting day and night in the narrow cockpit.

"I have the impression that I'm still in the air," the 57-year-old said on the tarmac, as he was showered by congratulations and slaps on the back from the 70-strong team.

"I feel very pleased, really happy. It was a crucial step. Now we'll go even further, we'll do long missions," Borschberg told AFP.

The plane took off from Payerne on Wednesday and flew through 14 hours of sunshine to power its engines and charge its batteries for the night flight through its array of 12,000 solar cells.

Flight director Claude Nicollier told AFP that the flight had exceeded expectations overnight just as the pilot guided the aircraft towards a landing just a few hours after dawn.

"It's a super flight, better than nominal," said Nicollier, a former space shuttle astronaut, on Thursday morning.

"We needed also a little bit of luck, which we had with the weather which was absolutely perfect," he told AFP.

There were fears that a brief burst of strong high altitude winds had deprived Solar Impulse of some of the stored energy as darkness fell Wednesday.

Borschberg said the flight only found "one or two little difficulties."

"The flight was really zen. It's very peaceful, during this time you have the time to think and to concentrate," he explained.

Piccard revealed that Solar Impulse had emerged from darkness with three hours of energy left in its batteries, which was a far bigger margin than he expected.

The plane was also able to take immediate advantage of a new burst of energy as daylight started to seep through the night again before it landed.

"Nothing can prevent us from another day and night... and the myth of perpetual flight," an elated Piccard told journalists.

The first prototype is donned with solar panels across a wingspan of 207 feet, the size of an Airbus A340 airliner.

Enough energy is provided by solar cells and a half-ton of batteries for four small electric motors and propellers and weigh a little more than a car.

The team is encouraged by a desire to demonstrate that clean energy and fuel saving has the technology and should be developed and used more widely for transportation.

"We didn't really have credibility until today," admitted Piccard. "What we have done today in the air is an example of what should be done on the ground."

However, the venture was trying to find partners to help fill a $19 million gap in its $95 million budget for a new, bigger plane.


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