Friday, 4 December 2009

Bertrand Piccard's Solar Impulse aircraft makes inaugural flight

Charles Bremner in Zurich

Hopes that aircraft could one day be kept in the air by solar energy were boosted yesterday when a giant sun-powered plane left the ground in Switzerland on a brief maiden flight.
The Solar Impulse, which is designed to soar across oceans using four solar-driven electric propellers, flew 350m (1,150ft) about a metre above the runway at a military aerodrome near Zurich with a German test pilot at the controls.
Several experimental aircraft have flown with pilots using solar power since the late 1970s but Solar Impulse is the first designed to fly indefinitely — staying aloft at night using batteries recharged by solar-panelled wings during the day.
Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss aeronautical pioneer behind the £80 million project, was thrilled by the flight of the spindly, ultra-light machine, which has a wingspan as wide as that of a commercial airliner.

“It is a very strong emotion. It has been a dream for ten years, and now we have got to this point,” he told The Times. “I am elated that we managed this a week before the Copenhagen climate summit.That sends a strong message that there can be sustainable powered flight with no pollution."
After perfecting the single-seater, which weighs only as much as a car and flies at about 55km/h (35mph), Mr Piccard, 51, and Andre Borschberg, 57, his partner, aim to fly the Solar Impulse across the Atlantic and then around the world. They will land every five days to exchange pilots.
The team developing the prototype at Dubendorf airbase said that they were thrilled by how well the pioneering technology was working. "It has behaved even better than expected. It is a very new flight domain," said Mr Borschberg, an engineer-businessman as well as a pilot.
Mr Piccard set out to blaze the way for future low-polluting flight after he and Brian Jones of Britain made the first non-stop flight around the world in a hot-air balloon in 1999. After expanding test flights, Mr Piccard and his partner aim to fly for a day and a night by the end of next spring over Europe. All going well, they will set off around the world with the Solar Impulse in 2012.