UNMANNED experimental aircraft soars high on first solar-powered test flight

Sunday, July 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BARKING SANDS, Hawaii (AP) _ Helios, a long, thin flying wing intended to fly higher than any unmanned aircraft ever, passed an altitude of 76,000 feet Saturday on its first solar-powered test flight.

The craft, piloted remotely, was switched to backup battery power for its descent after reaching a peak of 76,060 feet, said John Hicks, program manager for the project based at Dryden Flight Research Center near Los Angeles.

No problems were encountered during the 10 hours and 17 minutes it took the craft to reach peak altitude, Hicks said. The Helios was expected to return to the Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai Sunday morning.

After a slight delay caused by brief clouds, the aircraft took off and headed west across the Pacific, north of the neighboring island of Niihau, with researchers aiming for an altitude of 70,000 to 80,000 feet, he said.

Later this summer, researchers intend to send the plane to 100,000 feet, a record for an unmanned aircraft, more than three times higher than commercial jets fly.

Helios is a 247-foot-long flying wing that measures only 8 feet front to back. The $15 million aircraft is controlled from the ground by two pilots using desktop computers. Its 14 propellers are driven by small electric motors powered by solar cells built into the wing.

Helios was built by a partnership of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., which has produced many innovative aircraft including the human-powered Gossamer Albatross.

AeroVironment's smaller Pathfinder solar-powered airplane flew to a record altitude of more than 80,000 feet in 1998.