Two Swiss pilots have begun a trip across the United States in a solar-powered aircraft, called Solar Impulse. The aircraft is a test model for a more advanced version scheduled to circumnavigate the globe in 2015.
The solar-powered aircraft took off from a joint civil-military airport outside of San Francisco on the US West Coast on Friday, in the first leg of a cross-country trip that is expected to end at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City this coming July.
"The Solar Impulse has successfully taken off from Moffett Air Field," said an air traffic control as the plane started its journey at 6 a.m. local time, describing it as a "prefect take off."
The aircraft is scheduled to make its first stop in Phoenix, Arizona after a 19-hour low-speed flight. Additional stops are planned in Dallas, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Washington, D.C. before Solar Impulse arrives at its final destination in New York City on the US East Coast. The journey allows for up to 10 days at each stop, in order to wait for good weather.
Although Solar Impulse's creators claimed that the plane could make the trip nonstop in three days, the decision was made to break up the journey into several legs for safety reasons. Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the project's Swiss co-founders, will be co-piloting the aircraft.
'Not the easiest way to fly'
Solar Impulse cannot fly in strong winds, fog, rain or clouds, with its machinery unable to withstand moisture. The aircraft has the wingspan of a jumbo jet but the weight of a small car. It can climb to an altitude 28,000 feet (8,500 meters) and fly at an average speed of 43 miles per hour (69 kilometers per hour).
Propelled by 12,000 solar cells built into its wings, Solar Impulse has the power of a motor scooter and the storage capacity of a Tesla electric car. The aircraft can fly after dark on solar power collected during daylight hours.
During the unveiling of the current aircraft model last March, Piccard admitted to reporters that solar-powered flight had downsides.
"In that sense, it is not the easiest way to fly," Piccard said, referring to the aircraft's large wingspan and small carrying capacity. "But it is the most fabulous way to fly, because the more you fly, the more energy you have on board."
"We want to inspire as many people as possible to have the same spirit: to dare, to innovate, to invent," he added.
Piccard and Borschberg began the project in 2003, with a 10-year budget of 90 million euros ($112 million) and the backing of engineers from the Swiss escalator maker Schindler as well as the Belgian chemicals group Solvay.
slk/msh (AFP, Reuters)