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Pathfinder ground preparations prior to altitude record setting flight of 71,500 feet Pathfinder ground preparations prior to altitude record setting flight of 71,500 feet

Photo Number: EC97-44138-2
Photo Date: 7 Jul. 1997

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Technicians make final adjustments on the solar-powered Pathfinder remotely piloted research aircraft prior to the craft's taking off on a flight which established a new unofficial world's altitude record for both propellor-driven and solar-powered aircraft. The new record of more than 71,500 feet was set during a 14 1/2-hour flight July 7, 1997, from the U.S. Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii. The new altitude record is subject to verification by the National Aeronautics Association. The Pathfinder took off at 8:34 a.m. HDT, passed its previous record altitude of 67,350 feet about 2:45 p.m., and then reached its new mark at about 4 p.m. Controllers on the ground then initiated a slow decent, and Pathfinder landed seven hours later at 11:05 p.m. HDT. The experimental Boeing Condor remotely-piloted aircraft had held the previous record for propellor-driven craft of 67,028 feet. The Pathfinder had exceeded that height on a previous flight on June 9, 1997, but not by a large enough margin to be considered a new record.

Pathfinder was a lightweight, solar-powered, remotely piloted flying wing aircraft used to demonstrate the use of solar power for long-duration, high-altitude flight. Its name denotes its mission as the "Pathfinder" or first in a series of solar-powered aircraft that will be able to remain airborne for weeks or months on scientific sampling and imaging missions.

Solar arrays covered most of the upper wing surface of the Pathfinder aircraft. These arrays provided up to 8,000 watts of power at high noon on a clear summer day. That power fed the aircraft’s six electric motors as well as its avionics, communications, and other electrical systems. Pathfinder also had a backup battery system that could provide power for two to five hours, allowing for limited-duration flight after dark.

Pathfinder flew at airspeeds of only 15 to 20 mph. Pitch control was maintained by using tiny elevators on the trailing edge of the wing while turns and yaw control were accomplished by slowing down or speeding up the motors on the outboard sections of the wing. On September 11, 1995, Pathfinder set a new altitude record for solar-powered aircraft of 50,567 feet above Edwards Air Force Base, California, on a 12-hour flight. On July 7, 1997, it set another, unofficial record of 71,500 feet at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii.

In 1998, Pathfinder was modified into the longer-winged Pathfinder Plus configuration. (See the Pathfinder Plus photos and project description.)

NASA Photo by: unknown; US Navy/NASA photo

Keywords: US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility; Pathfinder; solar-powered; ERAST; Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology; AeroVironment; high-altitude; world record; Gossamer Condor; Albatross; Solar Challenger; HALSOL; High Altitude Solar; Hawaii; Kauai; Barking Sands

Last Modified: February 6, 2002
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