Piccard’s solar plane sets new flight record

Solar power might not ever become a meaningful part of air travel, but who really cares?

Solar Impulse is still way cool, and every bit of progress in its grand scheme to one day circle the globe powered only by the sun deserves to be celebrated.

The latest triumph: Europe to Africa. And the really nifty thing is that when pilot Bertrand Piccard touched the HB-SIA down at Morocco’s Rabat-Salé airport, 19 hours and 8 minutes after leaving Madrid on the last leg of the Switzerland-to-Morocco journey, the plane’s batteries were nearly fully charged. Dude should have kept going!

Alas, that would have bummed out the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN), which used the occasion to promote its own solar ambitions. Observe how MASEN chief Mustafa Bakkoury, at the landing site, deftly wove his group’s plans into the celebratory hubbub:

“As initiators of another innovative project, the world’s largest thermo-solar power plant, we share a common message with Solar Impulse; a strong one: solar energy no longer restricted to the scientific world but is becoming an integrative part of daily,” Bakkoury said. “We will begin production in 2014, coinciding with Solar Impulse’s world tour.”

Piccard offered a more personal take on the events of the day.

“It was perhaps the most beautiful flight of my life,”  he said, according to an Associated Press report. “I have dreamed since I was a child of flying without using fuel…. the flight over the Gibraltar Strait was a magical moment and represents one of the highlights of my carrier as an aeronaut.”

Solar Impulse said Piccard’s average ground speed on the 448-mile flight from Madrid to Rabat-Salé was 28 knots. He crossed over the Strait of Gibraltar at an altitude of 22,616 feet and at one point on hit a peak altitude of 27,000 feet.

This was the longest distance yet covered by Piccard and his fellow Swiss, André Borschberg, who tag-teamed the flight with a technical stopover in Spain. Not that he couldn’t have gone on longer by himself; Borschberg several months ago 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 flight – 1,554 miles in all – dwarfed the solar plane’s inaugural flight last year, when it went 340 miles on a journey between France and Belgium.

“It shows solar energy is a technology that we can trust,” Borschberg said at the landing in Morocco.

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 (63.4 meters) 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 that during flight recharge a set of four 400-kilo lithium batteries housed in the engine pods. The plane averages about 8 horsepower – similar to what the Wright Brothers managed when they first flew in 1903.