Solar-powered Plane Successfully Completes First International Flight

Pioneering Swiss solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse landed in Brussels on Friday after its first international flight, 13 hours after it took off from Switzerland.

The totally solar-powered Solar Impulse aircraft made its maiden international flight from western Switzerland and over France and Luxembourg, to an airport in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Solar Impulse

Solar Impulse, an aircraft powered only by solar energy, has completed its first international flight — from Payerne, Switzerland to Brussels, Belgium. Previous flights did not leave Switzerland.

The plane took off from Payerne at 8:40 a.m. (2:40 a.m. ET) Friday, covered approximately 480 kilometers (300 miles), flying over France and Luxembourg at 3,600 meters (11,880 feet) and landing at the Brussels Airport at around 9 p.m. (3 p.m. ET).

“This is wonderful,” said Bertrand Piccard, joint founder and president of the Solar Impulse project. The single-seater, piloted by Andre Borschberg, had lifted off gently in clear blue skies from Payerne airbase at 8:40 am (06:40 GMT) after being delayed by early morning mist.

“With this flight, we would like to encourage politicians to opt for more ambitious energy policies,” said Piccard before the aircraft landed.  He also called for “a change in mentalities to encourage people to use new (green) technologies” and stop wasting fossil energies. “It is crazy that mankind wastes a billion tonnes of oil an hour,” he added.

“The flight is going really well, I have just flown over Liege, it’s a real pleasure to enter Belgian airspace,” Andre Borschberg said as the dragonfly-like experimental and emissions-free aircraft cruised at 50 kilometres (31 miles) per hour.

“The view I have here is extraordinary,” the Swiss pilot added in a live feed over the Internet. “I’m above the clouds, for now I’m taking advantage of the blue sky.”

It holds the endurance and altitude records for a manned solar-powered aeroplane after staying aloft for 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds above Switzerland, flying at 9,235 metres (30,298 feet).

However, yesterday’s 12-hour flight was the first real test for the four-engine, 3,500-lb plane, as it required navigation through international air traffic networks.

“I feel relieved. For the last month, my biggest nightmare was that the plane would not arrive due to technical problems or due to weather problems,” Piccard said.

“Flying an aircraft like Solar Impulse through European airspace to land at an international airport is an incredible challenge for all of us, and success depends on the support we receive from all the authorities concerned,” said Borschberg.

Solar Impulse aircraft relies on 12,000 solar cells on its 64-metre (200-foot) wings to charge the batteries that provide the energy for the 10-horsepower electric motors driving four propellers. Its record-breaking flight last year demonstrated its capacity to store up enough energy to fly through a summer night.

The Solar Impulse project began in 2003 with a 10-year budget of 90 million euros and has involved engineers from Swiss lift maker Schindler and research aid from Belgian chemicals group Solvay.

With an average flying speed of 70 kilometres per hour (44 miles per hour), Solar Impulse is not an immediate threat to commercial jets, which can easily cruise at more than 10 times the speed. A flight from Geneva from Brussels can take little more than an hour.

Project leaders acknowledged it had been a major challenge to fit a slow-flying plane into the commercial air traffic system. A larger prototype is scheduled to fly around the world in 2013.

Solar Impulse’s next mission is scheduled for June, when the plane is slated to fly to France, where it will be exhibited at the 2011 Paris Air Show. The project’s ultimate goal is to be the first solar-powered, piloted, fixed-wing aircraft to circle the Earth. [Solar Impulse via ReutersInhabitat and Physorg]

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