Sun power flight all charged up

2012-06-05 19:09
The Swiss sun-powered aircraft Solar Impulse on its first attempted intercontinental flight from Switzerland to Morocco. (Dominique Faget, AFP)

The Swiss sun-powered aircraft Solar Impulse on its first attempted intercontinental flight from Switzerland to Morocco. (Dominique Faget, AFP) (Dominique Faget)

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Madrid - A Swiss pilot donned a blue oxygen mask as he flew high above Spain and approached Morocco on Tuesday on the world's first intercontinental flight in a solar-powered plane.

Bertrand Piccard, a 54-year-old psychiatrist and balloonist, took off before dawn from Madrid in the Solar Impulse plane, a giant as big as an Airbus A340 but as light as an average family car.

After a graceful take off at 05:22 (03:22 GMT), he guided the experimental plane southward from Madrid-Barajas airport.

"For one hour I had the full moon on my right and I had the sunrise on my left and that was absolutely gorgeous. I had all the colours of the rainbow in the sky and also on the ground," Piccard told AFP in an interview from the cockpit shortly after setting out.

After more than 10 hours' flight, Piccard had climbed to more than 5 500m and was about 80km from the southern coast.

Flying at some 45km per hour in the freezing, high altitude, he needed an oxygen mask to breathe.

An onboard video camera relayed images of the distant patchwork of fields and valleys stretched out below the aircraft, which has 12 000 solar cells in the wings turning four electrical motors.

To qualify as an intercontinental flight Piccard has only to cross the Strait of Gibraltar - 14km at its narrowest point - from Europe to Africa.

But the crossing is one of the most challenging points of the voyage because of the need of oxygen and temperatures that can dip as low as minus 29°C.

No fuel

He aims to enter Moroccan airspace over Tangiers and land at Rabat-Sale airport sometime after 23:00 (22:00 GMT).

All that, without using a drop of fuel.

Each of the motors on the carbon-fibre plane charges 400kg lithium polymer batteries during the day, allowing the aircraft to carry on flying after dark.

In the bright Spanish sun, the batteries had been recharged to full capacity by the afternoon.

"The question is not to use solar power for normal airplanes," Piccard explained.

"The question is more to demonstrate that we can achieve incredible goals, almost impossible goals, with new technologies, without fuel, just with solar energy, and raise awareness that if we can do it in the air, of course everybody can do it on the ground."

Organisers say the voyage has been timed to coincide with the launch of construction of the largest-ever solar thermal plant in Morocco's southern Ouarzazate region.

Piccard, who made the world's first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight in 1999 together with Briton Brian Jones, took over the plane's controls from project co-founder Andre Borschberg, a 59-year-old Swiss executive and pilot who flew a first leg from Payerne in Switzerland, landing in Madrid on May 25.

The voyage, 2 500km overall, is also intended as a rehearsal for Solar Impulse's round-the-world flight planned for 2014.

The aircraft made history in July 2010 as the first manned plane to fly around the clock on the sun's energy.

It holds the record for the longest flight by a manned solar-powered aeroplane after staying aloft for 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds above Switzerland, also setting a record for altitude by flying at 9 235m.

Read more on:    solar impulse  |  switzerland  |  solar  |  aviation
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