Solar Plane Begins Coast-to-Coast Flight

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A solar-powered airplane that can fly day and night without using a single drop of fuel embarked on an unprecedented flight across the United States Friday (May 3).

The solar-powered aircraft, named Solar Impulse, took off from Moffett Airfield near San Francisco, Calif., shortly after 9 a.m. EDT (6 a.m. PDT). The plane will now head south on the first 19-hour leg of its journey, and is expected to touch down at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport on Saturday (May 4) at 4 a.m. EDT (1 a.m. PDT).

Solar Impulse is the first aircraft capable of flying day and night without using any fuel. The plane relies solely on its solar panels and onboard batteries for power. During today's flight, the aircraft is expected to reach a cruising altitude of 21,000 feet (6,400 meters). (Images: Cross-Country Flight in a Solar-Powered Plane)

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Solar Impulse founders Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will alternate piloting the single-seater plane over the five legs of the journey. Piccard was at the controls for today's takeoff from California.

This morning's flight was slightly delayed, as officials in the Solar Impulse "mission control center" in Switzerland reviewed final details of the flight plan with air traffic controllers in California. After several quick discussions, Solar Impulse received the go-ahead for the first part of its historic journey.

"Solar Impulse you are clear to proceed. Have a nice flight," flight controllers radioed to Piccard in the cockpit shortly before takeoff.

In mid-May, the ultra-lightweight plane will begin the second leg of its trip, taking off in Phoenix and landing in Dallas, Texas. Toward the end of May, Solar Impulse will depart for St. Louis, Mo.; the fourth leg will take the plane from St. Louis to Washington, D.C.; and the fifth and last leg will end in New York City in late June or early July.

Each leg of the expedition will be streamed live on Solar Impulse's website. The live feed will feature information on the airplane's position, altitude and speed, as well as camera views from inside the cockpit and Solar Impulse's mission control center.

The Solar Impulse aircraft weighs about the same as a station wagon, and its solar panel-covered wings are roughly the same length as a 747 jetliner. Solar Impulse generates about the same amount of power as a small scooter, company officials have said.

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