Solar plane begins flight across America

A solar-powered airplane left Northern California on Friday for the first leg of a cross-country trip that its co-pilot described as a “milestone” in aviation history.

The Solar Impulse — considered the world’s most-advanced sun-powered plane — left Moffett Field in Mountain View just after dawn. Its creators said the trip is the first attempt by a solar airplane capable of flying day and night without fuel to fly across America.

It plans to land at Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth airport in Texas, Lambert-St. Louis airport, Dulles airport in the Washington area and New York’s John F. Kennedy airport. Each flight leg will take about 19 to 25 hours, with 10-day stops in each city.

“All the big pioneers of the 20th century have tried to fly coast to coast across America,” said co-pilot and one of the plane’s founders, Bertrand Piccard. “So now today we’re trying to do this, but on solar power with no fuel with the first airplane that is able to fly day and night just on solar power.”

The plane’s four electric motors are powered by about 12,000 photovoltaic cells that cover a massive 208-foot wing. The plane simultaneously charges its batteries, enabling it to fly at night.

The delicate, single-seat Solar Impulse flies around 40 mph and can’t go through clouds. It weighs about as much as a car, making it vulnerable to bad weather.

Its creators said solar planes will never replace fuel-powered commercial flights. But the goal is to showcase the potential of solar power.

“What we look for is to have a new milestone in this very exciting history of aviation that can attract interest of the people, of the political world, of the media and show that with renewable energies and clean technology for energy efficiency, we can achieve impossible things,” Piccard said.

The solar plane was created by Piccard and engineer Andre Borschberg, both Swiss nationals. The two have raised money since 2003 from corporate sponsors and investors, such as Swiss watch manufacturer Omega and Belgian chemicals group Solvay.

Solar Impulse flew for the first time in 2009, soaring 3 feet off the ground for 28 seconds. Work continued and by the next year Solar Impulse made a 26-hour flight in Switzerland on the world’s first solar-powered night flight.

In 2011 the plane made its first international flight from Switzerland to Belgium to France. Last year it took on the first solar-powered intercontinental flight, flying from Europe to North Africa in eight legs over two months.

Because the aircraft only has one seat, Piccard and Borschberg plan on taking turns flying the plane. The duo plans to fly around the world in a second plane in 2015. That flight will take place over 20 days and 20 nights with several stops.

The Solar Impulse was expected to reach Phoenix at about 1 a.m. today.