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Maiden flight for Bertrand Piccard's Solar Impulse aircraft

Solar Impulse, the solar airplane that Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard described in his captivating talk at TEDGlobal 2009, took off successfully this morning from Payerne airfield, in Western Switzerland, on its maiden flight. The aircraft (which has a wingspan of 63.40 meters but a weight of only 1600 kg and a speed at takeoff of just 45 km/h) climbed to 1200 metres. Test pilot Markus Scherdel used the opportunity to test various manoeuvres (turns, simulating the approach phase) and to verify the plane’s controllability, which so far had only been simulated with computers.

“This first mission was the most risky phase of the entire project. 87 minutes of intense emotion, after 7 years of research, testing and perseverance. Never has an airplane as large and light ever flown before! The success of this first flight allows us to envisage the further program with greater serenity”, said a delighted André Borschberg, CEO and co-founder of the project, after the plane landed.

The airplane’s wings are covered with solar cells, but for this first test flight they weren’t connected — the four engines were powered with ordinary electricity. Next for the Solar Impulse team: longer flights, followed by night flights, and in two years an attempt at flying around the world, in five legs of five days (and nights) each, powered only by solar energy.

(TED European director Bruno Giussani wrote earlier this year a long essay on the Solar Impulse project for the European editions of Wired: it is available here in English and here in Italian).