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Swiss test solar plane; hope soon to circle globe

A solar prototype airplane, following six years of work by 50 engineers and technicians and led by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, took its first flight in front of the Swiss Alps yesterday. A solar prototype airplane, following six years of work by 50 engineers and technicians and led by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, took its first flight in front of the Swiss Alps yesterday. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
By Bradley S. Klapper
Associated Press / April 8, 2010

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PAYERNE, Switzerland — A solar plane with wings as wide as a 747 and the power of a small motorboat took to the skies for the first time yesterday, cruising a mile high at bicycle-like speeds for nearly an hour and a half in a step toward becoming the first sun-powered aircraft to circle the world.

In its maiden test flight, “Solar Impulse’’ — designed by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard’s team — completed a series of turns, slip maneuvers, and bank angles reaching 5 degrees. Most importantly, it proved able to take off and land.

The team plans to fly it around the world in 2012.

“There has never been an airplane of that kind that could fly — never an airplane so big, so light, using so little energy,’’ said Piccard, who in 1999 copiloted the first nonstop round-the-globe balloon flight.

“So there were huge question marks for us.’’

At a military airport in the Swiss countryside, the plane lifted off at a speed no faster than 28 miles per hour after only a short acceleration on the runway. It slowly gained altitude above the green and beige fields, and disappeared eventually into the horizon as villagers watched from the nearest hills.

The descent was even slower, as the sun-powered craft hovered ahead of the runway for a couple of minutes before touching down to cheers from spectators.

The weather for the maiden flight was sunny, and there was little wind.

The project has been conducting flea-hop tests since December, taking the plane no higher than 2 feet in altitude and 1,000 feet in distance. A night flight is planned before July, and then a new plane will be built based on the results of those tests. The big takeoff is planned for 2012, and it will use not an ounce of fuel.

“The goal is to fly day and night with no fuel; the goal is to demonstrate the importance of renewable energies, to show that with renewable energies we can achieve impossible things,’’ said Piccard, who monitored but did not pilot yesterday’s test run.

Test pilot Markus Scherdel said the plane isn’t designed for maneuvers, but showed it was able to take off and land safely with handling like a passenger jet.

“Everything worked as it should,’’ he said.

Using almost 12,000 solar cells, rechargeable lithium batteries, and four electric motors, Piccard and copilot Andre Borschberg plan to take the plane around the world with stops to allow them to switch over and stretch after long periods in the cramped cockpit.

The circumnavigation will take time.

With the engines providing only 40 horsepower, the plane will fly almost like a moped in the sky, at an average flight speed of 44 miles per hour. The trip will be split up into five stages — keeping the plane in the air for up to five days at a time — with the stopovers also allowing the team to show off their creation.

Solar flight is not new, but Piccard’s project is the most ambitious.

In 1980, the fragile Gossamer Penguin ultra-lightweight experimental solar plane flew short demonstration flights with one pilot on board.

A more robust project called the Solar Challenger flew one pilot from France to England in a five-hour-plus trip in 1981.

Solar plane technology recalls the early days of manned flight, and the slow ascent of the Solar Impulse was somewhat reminiscent of the Wright brothers pioneering experiments over a century ago.