Following a series of runway tests late last year the Solar Impulse HB-SIA has taken to the air for the first time in the skies over Payerne, Switzerland. Piloted by Markus Scherdel, the completely solar powered craft reached an altitude of 1,200 meters and executed various maneuvers designed to test control systems and verify behavior against flight simulator calculations. The aircraft was in the air for 87-minutes before landing safely to the cheers of the Solar Impulse team.

“This first flight was for me a very intense moment!” exclaimed Scherdel, on stepping down from the aircraft. “The HB-SIA behaved just as the flight simulator told us. Despite its immense size and feather weight, the aircraft’s controllability matches our expectations.”

With the wingspan of a Boeing 747 and the weight of a car, never before has an airplane as large and light as the Solar Impulse flown before. It lifted off at a speed no faster than 45 kmh and, once airborne, completed a series of turns by gently tilting its wings that measure 63 meters (208 feet) from tip to tip.

For the test flight Scherdel was forced to rug up with special underwear, windproof overall and heated gloves and shoes since the cockpit had no shell around it.

When asked how the plane behaved in flight Scherdel said, “So far it was very well-tempered. But I have to say that today we were flying very slow – at one point the ground speed had dropped to 12 knots per hour (22 kmh) - and we never intended test the critical parameters of the plane. This will be one of the goals in the upcoming flights.”

Technically this isn’t the first time the craft has actually taken to the air, having flown for a distance of around 350 meters at a height of one meter. But for this initial “flea hop” the craft’s solar panels had not yet been connected.

The maiden flight of the Solar Impulse under solar power is another step on a long journey that will hopefully see an attempt to fly around the world non-stop in 2012. Before then the Solar Impulse team still has some hurdles to jump. The next step will be a night flight, which is planned for before July. Then, based on the results of the test flights, a second plane will be built to tackle the round-the-world flight.

“We still have a long way to go until the night flights and an even longer way before flying round the world, but today, thanks to the extraordinary work of an entire team, an essential step towards achieving our vision has been taken”, said Solar Impulse Chairman and initiator Bertrand Piccard. “Our future depends on our ability to convert rapidly to the use of renewable energies. Solar Impulse is intended to demonstrate what can be done already today by using these energies and applying new technologies that can save natural resources.”