Solar-Powered Plane Prepares For Aviation History

It will weigh just two tons.

A dainty solar-powered plane with wings the width of a giant Airbus will retrace exploits in aviation history, including Charles Lindbergh's first ever transatlantic crossing, before a pioneering round-the-world flight in 2011, project leaders said May 22. The "Solar Impulse" project led by Swiss round-the-world balloon pioneer Bertrand Piccard, undertook real-time computer simulations of a circumnavigation this week, a year before a prototype is due to take to the air.

The carbon-fiber Solar Impulse will have an 80 meter wingspan equivalent to that of a 580 ton Airbus A380, and 250 square meters (2690 square feet) of solar panels. Yet it will weigh just two tons and barely squeeze the lone pilot -- Piccard -- into its narrow, ultra-computerized, cockpit. The solar panels charge up ultra light lithium batteries which power four electric propeller engines along the wings.

The virtual flights, which can be followed on the Internet, are designed to replicate long-distance journeys through existing, real weather conditions by the high-tech but lightweight and slow-moving aircraft. The ground crew will try to ensure Solar Impulse has maximum exposure to the sun during the daytime to charge its batteries, but will also guide it around or above turbulence, unfavorable winds and bad weather. Each of its five legs around the world should last three to five days each. "We have no idea if the virtual flight will be a success or not. We're dealing with real conditions, so it may be a failure," Piccard said.

The team is adamant that they will try a first non-stop crossing of the United States by a solar powered aircraft and a first transatlantic flight before they launch the keynote circumnavigation of the globe in May 2011.

A first prototype is being designed and built in Switzerland by the 45-strong team using innovative and sometimes untested technology. It will later be succeeded by the aircraft that will make the record attempts, possibly taking off from the Gulf region for the circumnavigation.

The project initiated in 2003 brings Piccard back together with some of his companions on the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999, including British co-pilot Brian Jones and Trullemans. Piccard, who comes from a dynasty of pioneers, said that the idea of Solar Impulse partly came from being goaded about the balloon flight being the last challenge available. Piccard's grandfather, Auguste, and associate Paul Kipfer, became the first human beings to fly into the stratosphere in the 1930s, in a balloon.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2007

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