Solar Impulse plane sets distance record for a solar-powered flight

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By Alan Boyle, Science Editor

The Swiss-made Solar Impulse plane landed in Dallas on Thursday, breaking the distance record for a solar-powered flight on the second leg of its coast-to-coast odyssey across America.

The super-light, super-wide plane rose from its runway at Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport at 4:47 a.m. MST (7:47 a.m. ET) Wednesday with Andre Borschberg, Solar Impulse's co-founder and CEO, at the controls. He guided the plane through Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas, conducting a string of interviews from the air.

"It's flying very well," Borschberg told NBC News a couple of hours after takeoff.

Although the cockpit had room for only one flier, many more people were looking over his shoulder, thanks to a live video link. "They're all with me virtually," Borschberg said.

The plane took off at sunrise in Phoenix, and landed at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport well after the sun went down, at 1:08 a.m. CT (2:08 a.m. ET) Thursday.The power harvested by Solar Impulse's 12,000 photovoltaic cells and stored in its onboard batteries kept the plane going in the dark.

"It shows that with this technology, we can really do something in terms of controlling, reducing our energy consumption," Borschberg told reporters after the landing.

The flight took more than 18 hours, setting a pace that didn't break any speed records. You could have driven between Phoenix and Dallas in less time, and most commercial jets make the trip in two hours. But the 958-mile (1,541-kilometer) trek set a new distance record for a single solar-powered flight. Borschberg set the previous record, 693 miles (1,116 kilometers), last year during a Solar Impulse flight from Switzerland to Spain.

The Solar Impulse project began in 2003 with a 10-year budget of 90 million euros ($115 million), backed by Swiss sponsors. The plane is designed to demonstrate a host of clean-energy technologies, ranging from lightweight carbon composites to the solar-cell system that powers the plane's miserly motors. The airplane is as light as a typical passenger car, but its wingspan matches the width of a jumbo jet.

On Wednesday, the plane ranged as high in altitude as 27,000 feet, soaking up the sun's energy as it went. "The more I fly, the more energy I have aboard the airplane," Borschberg said.

The winds blowing across the runway at the Dallas-Fort Worth compicated Thursday's landing. Borschberg had to weave left and right, and make a crucial turn at just the right time for a successful landing. "We knew it was going to be difficult, but that's how we learn," he said afterward.

Famed adventurer Bertrand Piccard piloted the plane on the first leg of its cross-country journey on May 3, from Moffett Field in the San Francisco Bay Area to Phoenix. Piccard and Borschberg are taking turns in the cockpit as Solar Impulse makes its way eastward. After Dallas-Fort Worth, the plane is scheduled to move on to St. Louis, and then to Washington, D.C. The final leg of the trip, from Washington to New York, is expected to come sometime around the Fourth of July.

Borschberg said the coast-to-coast trip will serve as a warmup for a round-the-world, solar-powered odyssey in 2015.

Update for 10:50 a.m. ET May 24: The distance figure submitted to the National Aeronautics Association for this week's flight was 1,541 kilometers, which translates to 832 nautical miles or 958 statute miles.