First Solar-Powered Flight

First Solar-Powered Flight

On this day in 1974, over the dry lake at Fort Irwin, California, the remotely controlled Sunrise was catapulted into the air and took flight. It was the first flight of a solar-powered aircraft ever made.

Sunrise was designed by Robert J. Boucher of AstroFlight Incorporated, and funding was provided by the U.S. Defense Department’s research and development unit, DARPA. Powered solely by the sun, the plane’s 10-metre-long wing housed more than one thousand solar cells, generating a power output of 450 watts. Soon after the flight, in 1975, Sunrise was damaged in a windstorm. An improved solar-powered plane, Sunrise II, was subsequently built with an output of over 650 watts.

Boucher’s designs for Sunrise and Sunrise II were instrumental in future solar-powered airborne endeavors. In 1979, DuPont funded the build of the Gossamer Penguin that in 1980 would make the first manned solar-powered flight in history. The plane had a wingspan of over 20 metres, and was fragile and incredibly awkward. But on 7 August 1980, Janice Brown steered the device for over 14 minutes, flying about three kilometres over the Edwards dry lake at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

Although Boucher consulted on the design of the Gossamer Penguin, it was the invention of Paul B. MacCready, Jr. of AeroVironment. MacCready won a highly coveted Kremer prize for the plane’s flight.

Research continues today on further developments to solar-powered flight. Advances in power storage in batteries are even encouraging the possibility of nighttime flights as well. At the time of writing, AeroVironment continues to lead the way. Their remotely controlled Helios wing, which flew in 2001, had the capacity to store up to two-thirds of the power gained during the day for nighttime flying.

Credit: NASA Dryden Flight Research Center (NASA-DFRC)
Caption: The Gossamer Penguin, the first manned solar-powered flight, outshines nearby transportation vehicles.