Tuesday, August 14, 2001

The Helios, shown here yesterday northwest of
Kauai, uses 14 motors to lift its 1,600-pound
frame to altitudes far above those occupied by
cruising commercial jetliners.

Above it all!

NASA's solar-powered plane
Helios soars to a record 96,500 feet
in a thrilling test flight from Kauai

Observer kept an eagle eye on flight

By Anthony Sommer

BARKING SANDS, Kauai >> Flying northwest of Kauai yesterday, Helios, NASA's silent giant solar-powered flying wing, smashed the world altitude record for level flight by an aircraft but fell just short of breaking the magical 100,000-foot barrier.

The unmanned aircraft dropped to what NASA termed a "zero climb rate" at 4:11 p.m. at an altitude of 96,500 feet, more than 21,000 feet above the old level flight record, which has stood for a quarter-century.

With at least a two-week turnaround time between flights and the hours of daylight becoming increasingly short, NASA officials said it appears unlikely Helios ever will try again for 100,000 feet.


Helios will be back on Kauai in 2003 to test storage battery systems designed to keep it aloft at least 96 hours, but the test flights are planned for altitudes below 60,000 feet.

Dubbed "the Eternal Aircraft" and eventually capable of staying aloft at altitudes above all weather for months at a time, commercial versions of Helios are intended as replacements for more costly satellites and telecommunications relay stations.

Yesterday's dramatic flight from the Navy's Pacific Missile Range on the west tip of Kauai followed a mission cancellation on Saturday due to concerns about the aircraft. Another attempt was called off on Sunday because of high-altitude clouds blocking essential sunlight that provides power to Helios' 14 motors.

Yesterday's takeoff at 8:48 a.m. was about a half-hour late because of low clouds. But when the sun broke through, Helios lifted off quickly and quietly and soared skyward.

Expectations yesterday clearly were high. Many spectators from NASA and AeroVironment Inc. of Monrovia, Calif., were wearing T-shirts with a "Helios 100k" logo, and similar posters were handed out by NASA public affairs workers.

About 200 spectators lined the runway to watch the takeoff. Among the group were Marine Corps helicopter pilots and aircrew on a training deployment from Kaneohe Marine Air Station. Many expressed amazement at Helios' short takeoff roll before becoming airborne.

NASA officials expressed some concern about having to navigate around the low clouds, but by 9:30, technicians in the NASA hangar, who were watching live video from cameras on the aircraft and could see Helios was past the clouds, began telling each other, "We're in the clear, we're in the clear."

At 12:57 p.m., at solar noon when its solar cells were receiving the most energy, Helios hit its maximum climb rate of 430 feet per minute.

NASA's drone aircraft was developed by AeroVironment Inc.
to serve as a research or communications platform capable
of sustained, high-altitude flight -- an "atmospheric satellite."

Temperatures at high altitude dropped as low as minus 71 degrees.

At 1:49 p.m., Helios reached 76,400 feet, besting its first flight on July 14.

At 2:03 p.m., Helios reached 81,400 feet, breaking the 80,200-foot altitude record for propeller-driven planes set by the NASA-AeroVironment Pathfinder Plus at Kauai in 1998.

Shortly afterward, at 2:20 p.m., Helios reached 85,120 feet, achieving the highest level flight altitude in history.

The previous record of 85,068 feet was set by an SR-71 Blackbird spy plane in 1976.

At 4:09 p.m. in waning sunlight, Helios stopped climbing at 96,500 feet. It was expected to require eight to 10 hours to fly Helios in the dark on battery power back to the Navy missile base.

Built of carbon fiber, graphite epoxy, Kevlar, Styrofoam and covered with a thin transparent skin, Helios' 247-foot wingspan is wider than any conventional aircraft.

The $15 million aircraft is powered by 14 electric 2-horsepower motors turning 79-inch propellers. It weighs about 1,500 pounds, less than a compact car. Its entire wing surface is covered with solar cells.

Observer kept an
eagle eye on flight

By Anthony Sommer

BARKING SANDS, Kauai >> It isn't a record until Stan Nelson says it's a record.

Nelson was the official observer of the Helios flight yesterday for the National Aeronautics Association.

Founded by Orville Wright in 1915, the NAA is the official arbiter of what is and isn't an aviation record in the United States.

Similar organizations exist in most countries.

They send their certified records to Federation Aeronautique Internationale in Switzerland, which declares all world records.

Nelson said he is required to watch the aircraft take off and land and to witness its highest altitude on radar.

NASA and Helios builder AeroVironment Inc. were aiming to break the world record altitude of 80,201 feet for propeller-driven aircraft, set by the NASA-Aerovironment Pathfinder Plus flying from Kauai in 1998, and the sustained horizontal flight record of 85,068 feet, set by an SR-71 Blackbird jet-powered spy plane in 1976.

Nelson was clearly impressed with the design and workmanship in Helios, which weighs only 1,500 pounds and has a takeoff speed of only 17 miles per hour.

Rocket-powered spacecraft, which carry their own oxygen supply, have flown higher.

The record for balloon flight was set in 1960 by Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger, who ascended to 102,800 feet and jumped, becoming the first man to break the speed of sound with his body at 714 mph, and then landed safely by parachute.

Nelson, who lives in Taos, N.M., is a retired NASA pilot and former chief of operations at the Kennedy Space Center.

He is an avid sailplane pilot and set a gliding distance record in May for his class of sailplane.

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