WASHINGTON – 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 feet in 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 Flight Research 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 a combination 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.
In 1998, Pathfinder was upgraded to become Pathfinder-Plus, with a new center wing panel that increased the wingspan from 99 feet to 121 feet. Pathfinder-Plus was fitted with new high-efficiency solar cells on its center wing panel and other improvements that enabled it to set anther altitude record of 80,201 feet for propeller-driven aircraft in August 1998.
The upgraded solar and control system technology validated in the Pathfinder-Plus led to development of the Helios, which set the current world altitude record for propeller-driven aircraft in level flight of 96,863 feet near the Hawaiian island of Kaua'i in 2001.
During the summer of 2002, the Pathfinder-Plus flew several demonstration missions over Hawaii to confirm the practical utility of high-flying, remotely piloted, environmentally friendly solar aircraft for commercial purposes, emphasizing its capabilities as a relay platform for telecommunications and aerial surveillance of crops. Pathfinder-Plus' final mission in September 2005 saw the featherweight craft perform atmospheric turbulence measurements at Edwards AFB under the auspices of NASA Dryden.
"Those of us on the NASA / AeroVironment team will always consider ourselves to be privileged to have been allowed to explore some of those "veiled" regimes with the Pathfinder," Del Frate reflected. " We are honored that the vehicle now "flies" in the company of other great aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum."
Other innovations of Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment or its founder, Dr. Paul MacCready, that are in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian include the Gossamer Condor, Gossamer Albatross, Solar Challenger and Quetzalcoatlus Northropi replica Pterosaur aircraft and the Sunraycer solar race car developed for General Motors.
The National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center displays among its artifacts the larger icons in the museum's collection, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the space shuttle prototype Enterprise, a Concorde and the "Dash 80" Boeing 707 prototype, along with thousands of other smaller items. The center is open daily.
PHOTO EDITORS: High-resolution photos to support this release are available electronically on the NASA Dryden web site at: http://www.dfrc.nasa.gov/Gallery/Photo/Pathfinder-Plus/index.html.
For more information about NASA Dryden Flight Research Center and its research projects, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden. For more on AeroVironment, visit: www.avinc.com/about_overview.php or contact Steven Gitlin at 626-357-9983, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more on the National Air and Space Museum, contact Peter Golkin at 202-633-2374, or by e-mail at Golkinp@si.edu.
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