Solar plane soars into Morocco, record books

The Solar Impulse glides in for a landing in Rabat.
The Solar Impulse soared over the Mediterranean Sea into Morocco to a hero's welcome.

"The flight over the Gibraltar Strait was a magical moment," said pilot Bertrand Piccard, Swiss psychiatrist, balloonist and adventurer, on the official website.

The Swiss airplane, which has four electric motors and looks a little like a dime-store balsa-wood model a child would assemble and throw, isn't meant to revolutionize the industry, its designers and backers say. Rather it is meant to draw attention to the potential of renewable energy.

“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message.” Piccard says.

Lightweight marvel

The plane itself is a marvel of lightweight engineering. Big as an Airbus A340 with a 207-foot wingspan, it features 12,000 solar cells in the wings and a carbon-fiber structure designed to resist the elements but weigh very little.

In fact, it weighs 3,527 pounds, or about 500 pounds less than the average U.S. car. Speed is hardly an attribute with an average of 43.5 mph and a takeoff speed of about 22 mph. Average maximum altitude is 27,900 feet. The Solar Impulse also is outfitted with lithium polymer batteries that account for about a quarter of its weight and enable it to fly in the dark.

Dave Williams of French news service AFP says the aircraft made history in July 2010 as the first manned plane to fly around the clock on the sun's energy. It holds the record for the longest flight by a manned solar-powered aeroplane after staying aloft for 26 hours, 10 minutes and 19 seconds above Switzerland, also setting a record for altitude by flying at 30,298 feet.

The Solar Impulse began its latest effort, a 2,500 kilometer intercontinental flight, in May departing from Payerne, Switzerland, with project co-founder Andre Borschberg, 59, at the controls. He landed in Madrid, Spain, on May 25. Piccard took over from there, leaving Spain on June 5 for a flight to Rabat, Morocco, that lasted 19 hours and 8 minutes.

Solar energy in Morocco

The flight, organizers say, was made to coincide with the ground-breaking in southern Morocco of the world's largest solar thermal plant. The World Bank-financed project in Ouarzazate is projected to produce 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy for North Africa and Europe. The airplane will fly to Ouarzazate after a five-day layover in Rabat.

Mustapha Bakkoury, president of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy, says in a statement that the Solar Impulse flight is important for raising awareness about solar energy's potential to reduce global dependence on oil.

"We share a common message with Solar Impulse," he says. "Solar energy is no longer restricted to the scientific world but is becoming an integral part of our daily lives." Bakkoury says Morocco will be producing solar-energy by 2014, when Solar Impulse plans a round-the-world tour.