Solar Impulse takes off on maiden flight in a first step of an eventual solar-powered world journey
Solar Impulse HB-SIA on its maiden flight above Paverne, Switzerland (photo: Solar Impulse)
Thu 8 Apr 2010 – Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard and his team successfully completed the maiden flight of their Solar Impulse aircraft in Payerne, Switzerland yesterday. The test flight lasted nearly 90 minutes, with the aircraft reaching an altitude of 1,200 metres. Although reported not to have been connected for this initial flight, the aircraft has almost 12,000 solar cells integrated into its massive wings – the length of a large commercial airliner – which feed energy to the four electric motors, each with a maximum power of just 10 HP. Solar-powered aircraft are unlikely to ever see commercial passenger use but Piccard says the aircraft is intended to demonstrate the importance of converting aviation to renewable energies.
It has taken six years of work and a 70-person team, along with 80 partners, to design and build a totally new carbon fibre aircraft with the wingspan of an Airbus A340 (63.4m) and the weight of an average family car (1600kg). The solar cells also charge the lithium-polymer batteries that will enable the aircraft to fly at night.
Test pilot Markus Scherdel said that despite its immense size and feather weight, the aircraft’s controllability matched expectations after executing various flight exercises and manoeuvres.
“This first mission was the most risky phase of the entire project,” said André Borschberg, CEO and co-founder of the project. “Never has an airplane as large and light ever flown before.”
A night flight is planned later this year, and then a new plane will be built based on the results of those tests. Bertrand, who in 1999 co-piloted the first non-stop round-the-globe balloon flight, and Borschberg hope to co-pilot the aircraft around the world in 2013. The journey will be split up into five stages, keeping the plane in the air for up to five days at a time.
“We still have a long way to go until the night flights and an even longer way before flying round the world, but today, thanks to the extraordinary work of an entire team, an essential step towards achieving our vision has been taken,” said Piccard. “Our future depends on our ability to convert rapidly to the use of renewable energies. Solar Impulse is intended to demonstrate what can be done already today by using these energies and applying new technologies that can save natural resources.”
Solar-powered flight is not new but Piccard’s project is the most ambitious. In 1981, the Solar Challenger made a five-hour flight across the English Channel from France.
Piccard himself comes from a long line of adventurers. His late father Jacques was a famous deep-sea explorer and grandfather Auguste was the first to take a balloon into the stratosphere. Fictional Star Trek character Capt Jean-Luc Picard is said to be named after Auguste.