Sunday, July 8, 2001

The Helios, a solar-powered, pilotless craft, took a test
flight near Dryden, Calif., earlier this year. Its maiden
flight on Kauai yesterday was called off because
of a computer failure.

Computer failure
delays Helios flight

The solar-powered craft
was to have attempted an
altitude record over Kauai

By Anthony Sommer

BARKING SANDS, Kauai >> A planned 14-hour maiden flight of Helios, NASA's massive solar-powered flying wing, was scrubbed yesterday morning after a computer aboard the aircraft shut down and could not be restarted.

NASA had hoped to set an altitude record yesterday by besting the 80,000-foot mark set by its much smaller Pathfinder Plus solar plane flying over Kauai in 1998. A Helios flight to break the 100,000-foot barrier is planned for later this summer.

Helios has flown before in California, but only on battery power and only at low altitudes. It has never used its solar panels to power its 14 electric motors. Helios is a prototype for a planned commercial solar airplane that can stay aloft for months at a time.

Hundreds of Kauai residents who began arriving at the Navy's Pacific Missile Range to witness the takeoff of Helios were disappointed.

The 247-foot-wide aircraft was towed to the end of the runway by a pickup truck shortly after dawn for a scheduled 7:50 a.m. takeoff. The motors were started several times before the flight was called off.

At 8:30 a.m., NASA project manager John Hicks announced that several attempts to restart the computer had failed and the flight was postponed. Because Helios relies on the sun for power, it could not take off later in the day and accomplish the flight goals.

The computer processes all the telemetry data such as speed and altitude used by the pilots on the ground to fly Helios. NASA was investigating the reason for the computer failure. "It could be something as simple as a loose connection," Hicks said.

The next possible flight date is at the end of this week. The Japanese Navy is using the training range at the missile base for a major exercise between Monday and Thursday.

The first Helios flight was delayed for several weeks because of a requirement to redesign the plane's flight termination system, which allows it to be parachuted down in the event of a major failure.

Then the aircraft sat in the hanger most of last week because the jet stream had moved over Kauai, causing high winds above 40,000 feet. The winds had abated enough yesterday to attempt a flight.

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