Solar Impulse arrives for Paris Air Show

Solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse has arrived at Le Bourget, where it is appearing at the Paris Air Show. An earlier attempt to make the flight from Brussels, where it had been on display, had to be aborted because of bad weather.

Piloted by project co-founder André Borschberg, the plane took off from Brussels Airport at 5.10am on Tuesday 14 June and flew through the day to land in Paris more than 16 hours later at 21.15pm, following a long, curving route because of air traffic and meteorological conditions. The flight was directed from Solar Impulse's mission control centre in Payerne, Switzerland, using a satellite communications system developed by Swisscom.

Solar Impulse is intended to demonstrate the capabilities of advanced technology to achieve zero-fuel flight, harvesting solar energy through an array of around12,000 solar panels on its wings to charge lithium-polymer batteries that keep it aloft overnight or in heavy cloud.

The aircraft will be a 'special guest' at the Paris Air Show, which begins next week. Because its large wingspan and light weight also make it susceptible to high winds it will be on show in a custom-built temporary hangar, but it will also make flying displays every morning if the weather conditions are right.

Since the aircraft was unveiled in 2009 it has been put through a series of tests, leading to its maiden flight in April 2010 and first night flight in July of that year, with continuing development work on the mission since then.

Preparation for flights outside Switzerland has been complex, requiring special authorisation from the civil aviation authorities in each of the countries overflown, as well as the cooperation of a number of air traffic control centres.

Brussels Airport was chosen as the first international destination because the European Commission has sponsored Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg's project since 2008. During a week of displays in May, thousands of visitors saw the plane and learned about the project's aims of promoting new technology and renewable energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuel. Several hundred people, including the principal European political leaders, met Borschberg and Piccard to discuss concrete solutions for the future.

Although mission controllers allowed themselves a long period of opportunity to make the onward journey from Brussels to Paris, the weather was against them. An attempt on 11 June was unsuccessful, with the plane forced to turn back because of cloud cover and headwinds.

Conditions on the ground enabled the batteries to be recharged by sunlight to 60 per cent, but with a deadline looming managers made the exceptional decision to complete the full charge with electrical power, so the aircraft could take advantage of a narrow weather window between two rain fronts to be sure of arriving in Paris in time for the show.

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