Solar Impulse Takes Aim At Fuelless Flight Record

A solar-powered airplane will attempt to fly in to the history books once more when it tries to go 1,550 miles (2,500 kilometers) without using a drop of fuel.

The pilots of the plane, dubbed the Solar Impulse, want to undertake the two-day journey from France to Morocco as a dress rehearsal for the ultimate goal of flying around the world in 2014.

solarpulseplane

image via Solar Impulse

Planned for May or June, the 48-hour flight over the Pyrenees mountain range and the Mediterranean will touch down near the Moroccan town of Ourzazate, on the edge of the Sahara desert.

It will be the longest distance yet covered by the two Swiss pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, who plan to swap places in the cockpit at a technical stopover in Spain, allowing them to tag-team the flight. Borschberg recently completed three days and three nights of flight simulation in Dübendorf, Switzerland, during which the Solar Impulse team was able to test the human challenge posed by long flights.

This latest attempt will dwarf the solar plane’s inaugural flight last year, when it went 630 km (340 miles) on a journey between France and Belgium.

A plane this light and of this size has never been built before. Piccard and Borschberg spent seven years developing the craft which has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 (63.4m) and yet weighs only as much as an average family car.

The revolutionary carbon fiber aircraft has 12,000 solar cells built into its wing which recharge a set of four 400 kilo lithium batteries housed in the engine pods during flight. The plane averages about eight horsepower—similar to what the Wright Brothers managed when they first flew in 1903.

Paul Willis has been journalist for a decade. Starting out in Northern England, from where he hails, he worked as a reporter on regional papers before graduating to the cut-throat world of London print media. On the way he spent a year as a correspondent in East Africa, writing about election fraud, drought and an Ethiopian version of American Idol. Since moving to America three years ago he has worked as a freelancer, working for CNN.com and major newspapers in Britain, Australia and North America. He writes on subjects as diverse as travel, media ethics and human evolution. He lives in New York where, in spite of the car fumes and the sometimes eccentric driving habits of the yellow cabs, he rides his bike everywhere.