Solar plane takes to the skies

With a wingspan comparable to a jumbo jet but weighing the same as a family car, nobody was quite sure how the Solar Impulse would behave once it was airborne.

The solar aircraft took to the skies for the first time on Wednesday when test pilot Markus Scherdel flew the innovative plane between two Swiss airfields.

The plane is the dream of long distance balloonist Bertrand Piccard and its design team hope it will be the first manned solar flying machine to circumnavigate the globe.

The challenge for such a plane is not only to propel itself without fuel, but to harvest enough solar energy during the day to charge its batteries to fly through the night.

“It is essential for the pilot to approach each night with full batteries and economise available energy to the maximum, to be able to stay in the air until the next sunrise,” said a statement from the plane’s designers.

“Therefore, the greatest challenge, before the round-the-world trip, will be the first complete night flight.

“For the solar panels, the day begins late and finishes early: one will only be able to count on about eight hours of usable light per day.

“Indeed, the lower the sun is on the horizon, the less efficient are its rays.”

The maiden flight lasted an hour and a half and gave the test pilot the chance to see how the plane handles and gauge whether the predicted maneuverability matches up with the real thing.

“This first flight was for me a very intense moment,” said Mr Scherdel.

“It behaved just as the flight simulator told us. Despite its immense size and feather weight, the aircraft’s controllability matches our expectations.”

Mr Piccard added: “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.

“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.”

Sam Bond

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