Solar-Powered Aircraft Lands After Overnight Flight

The experimental airplane landed safely after a night flight
The Solar Impulse HB-SIA solar-powered airplane flies during its maiden flight at Payerne Airport. Photographer: Charles Ellena/Bloomberg

An experimental airplane landed safely after flying through the night propelled entirely by 12,000 solar cells and sunlight-powered lithium batteries.

The HB-SIA carbon-fiber aircraft, flown by Andre Borschberg and weighing about as much as a mid-size car, touched down today at Payerne near Lake Neuchatel, Switzerland, at 9 a.m. local time, the Solar Impulse group said.

The flight was part of the project’s 100 million Swiss franc ($95 million) effort sponsored by Deutsche Bank AG, Germany’s biggest bank, to eventually pilot the first flight around the globe in an airplane using only solar energy. The seven-year project is led by the Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard and Borschberg, a 40-year flying veteran.

The flight was “the most incredible one of my flying career, just sitting there and watching the battery charge level rise and rise thanks to the sun and then that suspense, not knowing whether we were going to manage to stay up in the air the whole night,” Borschberg, 57, said. “I have just flown more than 26 hours without using a drop of fuel and without causing any pollution!”

The single-seat plane averaged 23 knots (26 miles per hour) making loops over lakes and Switzerland’s Jura Mountains. The next challenge will be for Solar Impulse to cross the Atlantic, then a five-stop, around-the-world flight set for 2013 using a second prototype about to begin construction this summer.

New Credibility

“Before yesterday morning, we didn’t have credibility,” Piccard, known for his record-setting 1999 balloon flight around the world, said on the group’s website. “It’s time to use this success to demonstrate in the political and economic world how we can use this clean technology.”

The plane took to the air yesterday at 6:51 a.m., lifted by 64-meter (210-foot) wings that about match the wingspan of an Airbus A340 airliner. It rose to almost 9,000 meters before sunset, powered by lithium batteries that made up 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of the plane’s 1,600-kilogram weight.

Just before the aircraft landed this morning in clear skies at the Payerne field, Solar Impulse team staffer Lucas Chambers wrote on the company website: “The sun has risen here in Switzerland and Solar Impulse is now officially the first solar-powered aircraft to make it through an entire night.”

It’s also “the end of an amazing night, the end of the longest and highest flight a solar-powered airplane has ever done.”

Solar Impulse’s aviation feat was front-page news on the Zurich newspaper Blick am Abend with the headline “Victory of the Sun.” The project’s other main sponsors include Swatch Group AG’s Omega brand and Brussels-based Solvay SA.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE