Pathfinder-Plus Solar Aircraft Lands in Smithsonian

The pioneering solar-electric flying wing that set several altitude records for propeller-driven aircraft under NASA sponsorship, has become the fourth innovation of its developer, AeroVironment, Inc., to be acquired for the permanent collection of the...


WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Pathfinder-Plus, the pioneering solar-electric flying wing that set several altitude records for propeller-driven aircraft under NASA sponsorship, has become the fourth innovation of its developer, AeroVironment, Inc., to be acquired for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

The ultra-lightweight flying wing was enshrined in the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia in late January, and is now prominently displayed for public viewing among the center's fleet of famed aerospace craft.

The original Pathfinder all-electric aircraft made its first flight on battery power in 1983, and was later upgraded with solar cell arrays to enable it to fly on the power of the sun. Its successor configuration, Pathfinder-Plus, went on to establish several flying records, including soaring to a world altitude record for propeller-powered aircraft of more than 80,000 feetin 1998.

"The Pathfinder / Pathfinder-Plus peeled back some of the veils of flight and explored new regimes," said John Del Frate of NASA's Dryden FlightResearch Center, Edwards AFB, Calif., who managed most of the NASA-supported flight research projects.

"The Pathfinder lived up to its name by gently plying its way to record-setting altitudes -- and those records speak for themselves," he added. "The aircraft didn't do it all by itself. It only represented the efforts of a small, dedicated team that was given the opportunity and the resources to make it happen."

Pathfinder Plus' record-setting development and test flights led the way for its successor, Helios, and for AeroVironment's next generation of stratospheric unmanned aircraft systems, the Global Observer, currently in development.

"The learning and technology developed from Pathfinder and Pathfinder-Plus' successful missions have been invaluable toward the continuing development of Global Observer, which we believe represents the future of stratospheric flight," said Tim Conver , president and chief executive officer of AeroVironment. "Innovation drives our business, and the installation of Pathfinder-Plus in the National Air and Space Museum, alongside some of the most storied aircraft in aviation history, will enable the public to share in this innovative aircraft's history."

Pathfinder was first developed for a classified government program in the early 1980's to develop a high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft for surveillance purposes. Known as HALSOL (for High-ALtitude SOLar) aircraft, it was first powered by batteries. After that project was cancelled, the aircraft was stored for 10 years before being resurrected for a brief program under the auspices of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1993. With the addition of small solar arrays, five low-altitude checkout flights were flown under the BMDO program at NASA Dryden in the fall of 1993 and early 1994 on acombination of solar and battery power.

Pathfinder was adopted by NASA's Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) program in 1994 to assist in the development of unmanned aerial research platforms for the stratosphere. With the addition of solar cell arrays across most of its upper wing surface, Pathfinder flew to 50,567 feet near Edwards AFB in 1995 on solar power, its first trip to the stratosphere. It then flew to 71,500 feet in 1997 while performing a series of high-altitude science missions over the Hawaiian Islands.

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