Solar Impulse plane lands in Phoenix


Watch the solar plane touch down in the dark in Phoenix, Arizona

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A plane powered only by the Sun has completed the first leg of a journey that aims to cross the US.

Solar Impulse, as the vehicle is known, took off at dawn from San Francisco, California, on Friday and landed in Phoenix, Arizona, some 18 hours later.

The craft will stop over in Dallas, St Louis, Washington DC and New York in the coming weeks.

The plane has the same wingspan as an Airbus A340 but it weighs just 1.6 tonnes.

It has already made a day-and-night flight lasting more than 26 hours, and the team aims to eventually circumnavigate the globe in 2015.

The plane took off from Moffett Field on the edge of San Francisco Bay at 06:12 local time (13:12 GMT) on Friday, and landed at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport at 00:30 local time (07:30 GMT) on Saturday.

This meant Solar Impulse spent several hours flying in darkness, relying solely on the energy stored in an array of lithium-ion batteries to drive its propellers.

In daylight hours, these are charged by nearly 12,000 solar cells that cover the craft's wings and stabiliser.

The Solar Impulse HB-SIA

Solar impulse plane infographic
  • Wingspan - 63m (208ft)
  • Weight - 1,600kg (3,500lb)
  • Covered with 11,628 solar cells
  • Carries 400kg (900lb) of lithium-ion batteries
  • Maximum cruising altitude of 8,500m (28,000ft)

The HB-SIA craft was piloted by Bertrand Piccard, a co-founder of the effort, who is perhaps best known for being the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot-air balloon, in 1999.

The trans-America bid is the first attempt of its kind - flying in the hours of daylight and in darkness - with a zero-fuel aircraft.

Together with co-founder and entrepreneur Andre Borschberg, the pair of Swiss pilots have racked up a number of world records and milestones in recent years.

The first night flight of a solar-powered craft in 2010 was followed by a first inter-continental flight in 2012.

The two pilots will share the job of flying the plane between each of the stops of the tour.

"We've been preparing for this flight since last summer, so we are all very excited," Mr Borschberg told BBC News.

The current aircraft HB-SIA is effectively the prototype for the craft that will eventually be used for a round-the-world trip. The HB-SIB should be completed by the end of 2013.

"You should see this like being in 1915 when the pioneers were trying to do these first cross-country flights - still unable to cross the ocean, but an important step for the development of aviation," Mr Borschberg said.

The launch on Friday served as the start of the pair's Clean Generation Initiative, an effort to encourage policy-makers and businesses to develop and adopt sustainable energy technologies.

"We want to show that with clean technologies, a passionate team and a far-reaching pioneering vision, one can achieve the impossible," Dr Piccard said at the announcement of the mission in March.

Landing Solar Impulse co-founder, pilot and CEO Andre Borschberg (L) greets pilot Bertrand Piccard at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix

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  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    109 AndyG. While I think you are right and solar airships would be a good directly applicable use of the technology (so much for those "smart" people who think technological innovation is a waste of money - in reality if you discount cheating banks and politicians it's where the money really is). As you say the airships have limitations but trains and boats in addition would improve I think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    Its OK to discuss this sort of plane, but NOT OK to discuss other planes in `action' at the present in the middle east.
    But thats OK its the BBC on World Press freedom day.
    GO ahead BBC remove my comment, you gagged me in the past do it again you mind warp sods

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    The serious innovation side to this venture is the incrementally pushing of the engineering boundaries of strength/weight and power/weight needed to extend the range of solar powered flight. This know-how has the potential to benefit the efficiency of all transport vehicles. So I applaud the project as not just fun and challenging but also potentially worthwhile research.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Solar powered airships are already being developed in the US and UK with cargo transportation the key motivation (and hopefully the old Bedford Hangers will be put back to good use!). But they won't be practical for all purposes. A key disadvantage of airships is their inability to operate in high wind speeds, for example, or where rapid delivery is required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    The best thing would be to put solar cells on an airship.
    They wouldn't have the power density to power a train at any reasonable speed. And why would you even bother, trains can already be powered electrically, it's just a matter of having environmentally friendly and cheap electricity production, with LFTR being the most feasible option at the moment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Looking at this and its limitations (I still love it) leads me to think about more practical applications, and somebody mentioned shifting freight around the country. Surely the most realistic way to use this technology would be in railways and trains? Trains use less energy because they climb hills far less and stop and start less, so could solar technology be added to them so carbon neutral?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Me mum and dad have had solar panels put on their house. Should I send them an anchor?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    There are considerable studies on the use of solar panels for power generation. A solar panel array located in North Africa could power the whole of Europe. The only problems are political, the technology is there today.

    As the UK policy for power generation is non-existant, I suggest getting solar panels on your home ASAP!

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    @99.Critical Mass,
    Not necessarily. For instance if nuclear options like LFTR are producing super cheap energy within the next few decades it might be possible to synthesize carbon neutral fuels from atmospheric CO2. Those fuels could then power aircraft. It certainly won't be lack of innovation that causes us to step back, more likely political pressure opposing things like LFTR.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Wow this is like the golden condor off mysterious cities of gold except it has batteries to fly at night. Amazing.

    Childhood dreams come reality, if you know what I talk of you are getting old!

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Any improvement in solar panels and battery storage is a step in the right direction. And, boy will the West need this in the coming decades.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Thank goodness the "spirit of adventure" is still alive and well. Now this is what I call news. Early cars and early aeroplanes were regarded as "stunts" by the "flat earth society". Now people take them for granted. This aircraft is one more step along the road of pushing boundaries in the application of new technology, and long may it continue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    I am all for modern technology such as solar flight but this developing story has me worried.
    How many birds are killed by windows?
    I mean, does it effect men as well, will there be a recall, should i find another operating system?
    It is your duty to inform beeb.
    a concerned viewer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    @92 chiwheels

    As an engineer you'll probably be interested to learn that the biggest source of helium is as a by-product from oil and gas wells. It's also a "fossil fuel" and needs preserving, especially for medical use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I admire pioneers, but so called 'clean energy' (which relies on fossil fuels for the machines that capture it) is never going to be scaled up (due to resource restrictions and time) to replace our needs before the energy crunch comes.
    Our only hope is a massive cut in use, which will probably mean air travel going back to a thing for the rich.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    Although a stunt of no relevance to commerce or politics this is great fun. I look forward to the transcontinental race next year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I am delighted too at last see someone show the rest of the world that there is something more positive than football, criminality, politics and religion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Good to see that some people are still developing and evolving.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Its not about being a practicle means of transport, its about demonstraiting alternatives to using fossel fuels.
    You can heat your greenhouse with some plastic water pipe running through a compost heap if you want to.
    Why give all that money to the oil companies and dictatorships.

    Icelands economic recovery has a lot to do with producing 98% of its electricity from geothermal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    This is very exciting news. Well done! Any tech advance that helps toward freeing humanity from fossil fuel is good news. As an aside, I like that sexy black stetson Andre Borschberg is wearing....


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