Solar Impulse takes flight

An entirely solar-powered manned aircraft has successfully completed its maiden flight in Switzerland.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA took off from Payerne airfield on 7 April and flew for 87 minutes, watched by thousands of spectators. Test pilot Markus Scherdel slowly took the aircraft to 1200 metres and began to familiarise himself with the prototype's flight behaviour, performing the initial flight exercises before coming in to land. The execution of the various manoeuvres (turns, simulating the approach phase) was designed to get a feel for the aircraft and verify its controllability.

HB-SIA is unlike any other aircraft now flying, with a huge wingspan (63 metres) coupled with extremely low weight (1600kg). Its upper surface is covered with solar cells.

"This first flight was for me a very intense moment," Scherdel declared on stepping down from the aircraft. "The HB-SIA behaved just as the flight simulator told us! Despite its immense size and feather weight, the aircraft's controllability matches our expectations."

The Solar Impulse project is led by adventurers Bertrand Piccard (chairman) and André Borschberg (CEO). Using the knowledge gained from the test programme they plan to build a second aircraft that can store enough energy in daylight hours to fly continuously for up to five days and nights. They intend to take it around the world in a high-profile tour to demonstrate their zero-carbon vision, stopping once in each continent to change pilots and allow the public to see the aircraft

After the maiden flight, Borschberg said: "This first mission was the most risky phase of the entire project. One hour 27 minutes of intense emotion after seven years of research, testing and perseverance. Never has an airplane as large and light ever flown before. The aim was to verify the prototype's behaviour in flight and to test its reaction to various manoeuvres. The success of this first flight allows us to envisage the further programme with greater serenity."

"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", added 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."

related content:
Super-light solar plane unveiled (July 2009)

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