LONDON A prototype solar-powered aircraft took its maiden flight Wednesday (April 7) ushering in the era of fuel-less, carbon-neutral air travel. The company behind the prototype, Solar Impulse SA (Lausanne, Switzerland) is planning for a round-the-world flight powered only by photons in 2011 or 2012.
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA took off from Payerne airfield on its maiden flight at 10:27 central European Summer Time and climbed up to 1200 meters. Test pilot Markus Scherdel spent the next 87 minutes familiarizing himself with the prototype's flight behavior and performing the initial flight exercises before making the first landing on the Vaudois tarmac. The execution of these various maneuvers (turns, simulating the approach phase) was designed to get a feel for the aircraft and verify its controllability.
"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," said Scherdel, in a statement.
The test flight has come after seven years of research and testing. The plane has a wing span of 63.4 meters (about 208 feet), roughly equivalent to that of the Airbus 340 and yet the HB-SIA weighs about the same as a family automobile. As well as providing lift the giant wing span offers a large surface for the solar cells.
The aim of the test flight was to verify the prototype's behavior in flight and to test its reaction to various flight moves.
"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 Bertrand Piccard, chairman of Solar Impulse. "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."
By the numbers
Wingspan 63.40 meters
Length 21.85 meters
Height 6.40 meters
Motor power 4 x 10 HP electric engines
Solar cells 11,628 (10,748 on the wing,
880 on the horizontal stabilizer)
Average flying speed 70 km/hour
Maximum altitude 8,500 m (27,900 ft)
Weight 1,600 kg
Take-off speed 35 km/hour
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