It can fly day and night using no fuel, says pioneer

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard has flown his way into the record books again after completing the world's first intercontinental flight in a giant solar-powered plane.

Mr. Piccard, a 54-year-old balloonist, landed in the Moroccan capital Rabat under a full moon late Tuesday after completing the 19-hour voyage from Madrid on his experimental carbon-fibre aircraft.

Mr. Piccard made the first non-stop around-the-world balloon flight 13 years ago. The Solar Impulse is an aircraft as big as an Airbus A340 but as light as an average family car. “Simply the flight over the Gibraltar Strait was a magical moment and represents one of the highlights of my carrier as an aeronaut,” said Mr. Piccard.

To qualify as an intercontinental flight, Mr. Piccard had only to cross the Strait of Gibraltar — 14 km at its narrowest point — from Europe to Africa. “Solar Impulse has demonstrated that a solar-powered airplane can fly day and night using no fuel. The next challenge is to fly around the world,” the organisers said on solarimpulse.com.

Mr. Piccard took off from Madrid before dawn for the 830-km flight and needed an oxygen mask to breathe in the freezing high altitude as he soared to a maximum height of 27,000 feet (8,230 metres). “For one hour I had the full moon on my right and I had the sunrise on my left and that was absolutely gorgeous,” Mr. Piccard told AFP in an interview from the cockpit. “I had all the colours of the rainbow in the sky and also on the ground.”

The crossing of the Gibraltar Strait was one of the most challenging points of the voyage because of the need for oxygen and temperatures that can sink as low as minus 29 degrees Celsius.

Each of the motors on the craft — which has a wingspan of over 63 metres — charges 400-kg lithium polymer batteries during the day, allowing the aircraft to carry on flying after dark.

“The question is not to use solar power for normal airplanes,” said Mr. Piccard, whose grandfather was the inspiration for the Professor Calculus character in the Tin Tin comics.