PAYERNE, Switzerland – An experimental solar-powered plane completed its first 24-hour test flight successfully Thursday, proving that the aircraft can collect enough energy from the sun during the day to stay aloft all night.
The test brings the Swiss-led project one step closer to its goal of circling the globe using only energy from the sun.
Pilot Andre Borschberg eased the Solar Impulse out of the clear blue morning sky onto the runway at Payerne airfield about 30 miles southwest of the Swiss capital Bern at exactly 9 a.m.
Helpers rushed to stabilize the pioneering plane as it touched down, ensuring that its massive 207-foot wingspan didn’t scrape the ground and topple the craft.
“We achieved more than we wanted. Everybody is extremely happy,” Borschberg told reporters after landing.
Previous flights included a brief “flea hop” and a longer airborne test earlier this year, but this week’s attempt was described as a “milestone” by the team and comes after seven years of planning.
The custom-built aircraft with its thin fuselage and the wingspan of a Boeing 777 passenger jet managed to climb to 28,000 feet and reached top speeds of over 75 mph.
The team says it has now demonstrated that the single-seat plane can theoretically stay in the air indefinitely, recharging its depleted batteries using 12,000 solar cells and nothing but the rays of the sun during the day.
The team will now start to build a second solar plane that will be more efficient and have a larger cockpit to allow for longer flights. That plane should be ready for international flights by 2013.