Wing - NASA's Helios crashes off Kauai during fuel cell test
Sommer Honolulu Star-Bulletin 2003.6.27
SANDS, Kauai >> Yesterday's crash of Helios, NASA's giant
experimental flying wing, will not end the space agency's program
to develop a solar-powered "eternal airplane," said NASA
spokesman Alan Brown.
"We plan to continue with the program and develop another
Helios-type vehicle," he said.
Helios broke apart at an altitude of 8,000 feet and fell into the
ocean several miles west of the Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility
yesterday, 29 minutes after taking off at 10:06 a.m. The aircraft
was unmanned and flown by remote control from the ground. It was
the first crash of a solar-powered airplane in six years of NASA
tests on Kauai.
No one was injured.
The aircraft, valued at $15 million two years ago when it set the
world's altitude record for winged aircraft while flying from Kauai,
was a total loss. NASA has not put a price tag on the exotic new
fuel cells that were added to Helios for this summer's planned tests.
The ultimate goal is to create what NASA has called an "eternal
airplane" that can fly above the weather for weeks or months
at a time, performing telecommunications and photographic functions
that now are done only by more expensive satellites.
NASA and Navy crews scoured the crash site yesterday hoping to
recover as much of Helios as possible.
A crash investigation team from NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center
at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was being assembled to fly to
Kauai to try to reconstruct the accident and discover its cause.
As there has been on all previous test flights, there was a chase
helicopter flying with Helios at the time of the crash. In the past,
the helicopter has carried at least one photographer. But if there
are any photographs of the crash, they will be impounded until the
accident investigation is done, Brown said.
Officials from AeroVironment, the California company that designed
and built Helios, declined to comment on the crash but said they
may make a statement after more facts about the cause are known.
"The aircraft belongs to NASA," said AeroVironment spokesman
NASA's news release, however, noted that AeroVironment employees
comprised the ground crew piloting Helios.
Helios crashed during its second major flight test in this summer's
series. During its first test on June 7, it stayed aloft for 15
hours and reached an altitude of 52,000 feet. But several leaks
made it impossible to start the fuel cells, so the flight was aborted
and Helios landed safely.
The new fuel cells are designed to provide 18.5 kilowatts of electricity
for the aircraft at night by combining oxygen from the air and hydrogen
carried aboard the aircraft in pressurized tanks. During the day,
Helios' electric motors were designed to run on electricity converted
from sunlight by 65,000 solar panels that covered the entire upper
surface of the wing. In past tests, night flight was limited to
the power from nonrechargable batteries carried aboard the aircraft.
Kauai's Pacific Missile Range Facility, where the Navy tests all
of its new missiles, has been the home of all NASA solar airplane
tests since 1997. NASA considered the Navy's 42,000 square miles
of ocean outside commercial shipping and air traffic lanes safer
than the area around Edwards Air Force Base, which in recent years
has seen an increase in housing developments and air traffic encroaching
on the test range.
"As it turned out, we made a good choice," Brown said
yesterday. "This is a high-risk, experimental program, which
is why we use an unmanned aircraft and why we use PMRF."
All of the tests have been during the summer months, when there
is maximum sunlight and when the runway at the missile range is
in the lee of the tradewinds, offering almost dead-calm conditions
for both takeoff and landing.
Pathfinder, NASA's first solar airplane, began flying from Kauai
in 1997 and played a major role in taking infrared aerial photographs
of all of the Hawaiian Islands.
Pathfinder Plus -- the original Pathfinder with additional wing
sections and motors -- was tested in 1998 and reached 80,201 feet,
a record for propeller-driven aircraft. Pathfinder Plus is still
based on Kauai and became last year the first solar airplane to
be used for commercial purposes. It was flown over Kauai to take
pictures of crops.
As of yesterday, Pathfinder Plus once again became the world's
only functional solar airplane.
Helios was a new and much larger aircraft. Like Pathfinder, it
was a large flying wing with no fuselage. And like Pathfinder, once
airborne its wing tips bowed upward, giving the aircraft a graceful
Powered by 14 electric 2-horsepower motors turning 79-inch propellers,
Helios was built of carbon fiber, graphite epoxy, Kevlar and Styrofoam
and covered with a thin, transparent skin. Although its 247-foot
wingspan was wider than the wings of a Boeing 747, Helios weighed
1,500 pounds and had a takeoff speed of only 17 mph. Because of
the electric motors, it was virtually silent in flight.
Two years ago, Helios set the world sustained level-flight altitude
record of 96,863 feet, smashing the old mark of 85,068 feet set
by an SR-71 spy plane in 1976.
A large crowd of Kauai residents lined the runway to watch Helios
take off on its record flight in 2001. This year, because of increased
security at the Navy base, the public was not able to view the Helios
Helios crash press release