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Swiss solar plane makes history with round-the-clock flight

by Staff Writers
Payerne, Switzerland (AFP) July 8, 2010
A solar powered aircraft masterminded by a Swiss adventurer made history on Thursday as the first manned plane to fly around the clock on the sun's energy, bringing a step closer the dream of perpetual flight.

After 26 hours in the air the experimental Solar Impulse aircraft with pilot Andre Borschberg onboard make a seamless landing at Payerne airbase in western Switzerland at 9.01 am (0701 GMT), about three hours after daybreak.

"It's the first time ever that a solar airplane has flown through the night," said team chief Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss adventurer who achieved the first round the world balloon flight in 1999.

"That was the moment that proved the mission was successful, we made it," he told journalists.

Alighting from the plane after sitting day and night in the narrow cockpit, Borschberg told AFP that he felt that he was "floating."

"I have the impression that I'm still in the air," the 57-year-old said on the tarmac, as he was showered by congratulations and slaps on the back form the 70 strong team.

"I feel very pleased, really happy. It was crucial step. Now we'll go even further, we'll do long missions," said Borschberg

The high-tech single-seater aircraft had taken off from Payerne in the early hours (0451 GMT) of Wednesday, in the first ever attempt to use solar energy alone to keep a manned flight aloft for a day and a night.

Flight director Claude Nicollier said that the flight had gone well overnight just as Borschberg guided the experimental aircraft towards a landing after dawn.

"It went better than that," Nicollier said.

The plane's flight during the overnight hours of darkness was powered by the charge its batteries had stored during the 14 hours of daytime flight thanks to an array of 12,000 solar cells on wings the size of an airliner's.

"It's a super flight, better than nominal," added Nicollier, a former space shuttle astronaut.

As darkness fell Wednesday, there were fears that a sudden burst of strong high altitude winds at dusk had deprived Solar Impulse of some of the stored energy to last the night.

But Borschberg seemed unflustered by the 26 hour experience, dismissing "one or two little difficulties."

"The flight was really zen. It's very peaceful, during this time you have the time to think and to concentrate," he explained.

Piccard revealed early Thursday that Solar Impulse had emerged from darkness with three hours of energy left in its batteries, a far bigger margin than expected.

"Nothing can prevent us from another day and night... and the myth of perpetual flight," an elated Piccard told journalists, as his sights shifted towards the prospect of transatlantic and round the world flights in 2013-2014.

The first prototype, shaped like a giant dragonfly, is clad with solar panels across a wingspan of 63 metres (207 feet), the size of an Airbus A340 airliner.

The solar cells and nearly half a tonne of batteries provide energy for four small electric motors and propellers -- the "power of a scooter", as the crew put it -- and weigh little more than a saloon car.

The team is driven by a desire to demonstrate that clean energy is technically feasible and should be developed and used more widely for transport, in the household and at work.

"We didn't really have credibility until today," admitted Piccard. "What we have done today in the air is an example of what should be done on the ground."

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