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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 8:40 a.m., Tuesday, August 14, 2001

Launched from Kaua'i, high-flying Helios breaks world record

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Helios flying wing was named after the Greek sun god, and for eight hours yesterday, it seemed as if the unmanned aircraft was heading for home.

The Helios Prototype, NASA's solar-powered flying wing, soars over Kaua'i yesterday. The remotely controlled Helios, driven by 14 propellers turned by 2-horsepower electric motors, reached 96,500 feet.

NASA via Associated Press

NASA's solar-powered Helios Prototype soared into aviation history yesterday as it broke two altitude records. The aircraft didn't reach NASA's goal of 100,000 feet, but it did top off at 96,500 feet, the highest ever for a non-rocket-powered airplane, said NASA spokesman Alan Brown.

The Helios Prototype took off at 8:48 a.m. from the Pacific Missile Range at Barking Sands on Kaua'i. At 2:03 p.m., it reached 81,400 feet and broke the record set in 1998 by its sister aircraft, Pathfinder.

At 2:20 p.m., the Helios reached 85,100 feet, breaking the all-time record for a non-rocket craft set by the Lockheed SR-71 jet in 1976.

About two hours later, Helios hit the 96,500 level and climbed a few feet more before leveling off, Brown said. The aircraft was about 140 miles from Kaua'i when it began a gradual decent back to Barking Sands.

The giant propeller-driven flying machine landed safely at 1:43 a.m. today after making its nine-plus hour descent.

“Everything went flawlessly,” said Jenny Baer-Riedhart, public affairs director for NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center.

The altitude record must be certified by NASA, Brown said. He said the only aircraft to fly higher was the X-15 rocket plane, but he said it did not fly at a sustained horizontal level.

Brown said the Helios could have reached the 100,000-foot mark if it had flown earlier in the summer when there was a better sun angle and longer solar day.

Although the altitude record was a goal, that wasn't the main objective of yesterday's flight. Brown said the demonstration flight is being performed to validate the Helios' capability as a platform for high-altitude Earth monitoring and atmospheric sampling missions.

"The primary thing was to prove that this aircraft can fly in a very, very tough flight regime in the 90,000- to 100,000-foot range," Brown said. "There are a lot of science missions that can be done and need to be done at those extreme altitudes that simply cannot be done at lower altitudes or from space satellites. We see this as a monumental milestone that you can maintain aerodynamic flight above 90,000 feet."

NASA also believes an aircraft similar to the Helios could be used in missions to Mars. Brown said the aircraft would be used to collect data that land rovers and satellites aren't able to pick up.

"Helios is not a prototype for a Mars vehicle," he said. "But if you can prove that a lightweight aircraft can actually maintain flight, then you're halfway there."

The Helios is driven by 14 propellers turned by 2-horsepower electric motors. Brown said the aircraft will use a backup battery as well as power generated from the propellers to return to Earth.

Helios Prototype was designed and built by AeroVironment Inc. of California. The project is funded and managed under NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology project.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Curtis Lum at 525-8025 or culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.