Solar Airplane’s Maiden European Flight

Chuck Squatriglia

It took almost 13 hours, but an airplane powered only by the sun has completed the first international flight ever made by solar power, opening a new chapter in electric aviation.

André Borschberg, the CEO and co-founder of Solar Impulse, left Payerne aerodrome in western Switzerland at 8:40 a.m. local time. He touched down in Brussels 12 hours and 59 minutes later…

The carbon-fiber airplane, dubbed HB-SIA, has a wingspan of 208 feet, roughly that of an Airbus A340. It draws energy from 11,628 silicon solar cells. They provide power to four 10-horsepower motors. Excess energy is stored in four lithium polymer batteries, one per engine pod, keeping the plane aloft after dark. Each prop is 11.5 feet in diameter; a gearbox limits their speed to 400 rpm.

Batteries are heavy and account for about 25 percent of the plane’s weight. To minimize mass, the airframe is made of carbon composite honeycomb. The wing features 125 carbon fiber ribs covered by a thin film. The plane can fly at an average of 44 mph and a maximum altitude of 27,900 feet.

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