Solar-power plane heads into first night flight

Wed Jul 7, 2010 10:58am EDT
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By Vincent Fribault

PAYERNE, Switzerland, July 7 (Reuters) - A solar-powered aircraft designed to fly round the clock without traditional aviation fuel or polluting emissions headed on Wednesday into its crucial first night flight.

The plane, named Solar Impulse, took off for its first 24-hour test flight just after dawn from an air base near this central Swiss town and began climbing above nearby lakes and mountains toward a peak altitude of 8,500 meters (27,900 feet).

"It is going well. This is an incredible moment," said Bertrand Piccard, one of the two initiators of the project who himself carried out the first non-stop round-the-world flight in a hot-air balloon just 11 years ago.

At the controls of the wide-winged aircraft is engineer and former Swiss airforce pilot Andre Borschberg, co-founder of the Solar Impulse project with Piccard, who comes from a family of explorers and adventurers.

Borschberg will bring the carbon-fiber plane back down again to 1,500 meters (4,500 feet) before nightfall to glide on the stored power and land at Payerne in the morning. He told reporters by radio link that it was behaving perfectly.

The Solar Impulse, which has 12,000 solar cells built into its 64.3 meter (193-foot) wings is a prototype for an aircraft that its creators hope will carry out its first circumnavigation of the globe in 2012.

With a wingspan the same size as an Airbus A340 and, at 1,600 kg (3,500 lb), weighing only as much as a medium-sized car, the plane is powered by four electric motors and is designed to save energy from its solar cells in high-performance batteries.

A total of six years under development, it has already carried out two short but successful test flights, the last above Payerne in April when it spent 87 minutes in the air and reached a height of 1,200 meters (3,600 feet).   Continued...

<p>Solar Impulse Chief Executive Andre Borschberg gives a thumbs up before taking off in the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered HB-SIA prototype airplane, for its first night flight attempt at Payerne airport July 7, 2010. The propeller plane has a 61-metre (200-foot) wingspan and is powered by four electric motors. It is designed to fly day and night by saving surplus energy from its 12,000 solar cells in high-performance batteries. REUTERS/Fabrice Coffrini/Pool</p>