Solar-powered Airplane Crosses the English Channel

In 1980, Paul MacCready developed the first solar-powered aircraft, the Gossamer Penguin. A year later, MacCready pushed the limits even further with the Solar Challenger, a larger and more rigid solar-powered aircraft. Powered by only the sun's rays, the Solar Challenger, at a cruising altitude of 11,000 feet (3,352.8 meters) made a successful 163-mile (262.3-kilometer) trip from Paris, across the English Channel, landing in England.

The World Solar Challenge

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The idea to enter the World Solar Challenge originally came from GM's Australian division. Once Roger Smith heard about the concept he promptly contacted AeroVironment to gauge whether it was feasible to build a vehicle that would be competitive in less than a year. After conducting an initial study, Paul MacCready was confident his team could pull it off.

MacCready along with Hughes Electronics executed the design of the Sunraycer and took it for a test spin in Arizona in early October, 1987. It performed admirably, completing four laps of a 5-mile (8 kilometer) course with a best average speed of 35.227 mph (56.692 kilometers per hour), setting a new land speed record for a solar-powered vehicle.

The World Solar Challenge starts at Darwin and ends in Adelaide, Australia, and encompasses public roadways throughout. As a result, drivers in the competition must adhere to the same rules as every other driver on the road. The race runs from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. at which time the drivers and teams camp until the race begins the next day. From 1987 until 1999, the race convened once every three years. Since 2001, the race has been held every two years.

During that inaugural race in Australia, the GM team took the pole position after it recorded the fastest time in qualifying. At the end of the 1,864-mile (3,000-kilometer) race, and taking into account that a race day is only 9 hours long, GM's Sunraycer was more than two days ahead of its next competitor; an entry called the Sunchaser, built by Ford Motor Company. Averaging 41.5 mph (66.8 kilometers per hour), the Sunraycer covered the nearly 2,000-mile (3,218.7-kilometer) journey in 44 hours and 54 minutes. The Ford Sunchaser finished the race in 67 hours and 32 minutes. The Sunraycer's reliability played a major role in its victory.

While it looks very simple on the outside, the engineering behind its design is nothing short of purposeful. Let's move on to the inner workings of the Sunraycer in the next section.