A solar-powered aircraft lifted off from a suburban Washington airport before dawn Saturday, embarking on the final leg of a history-making cross-country flight.
The Solar Impulse flew out of Dulles International Airport a little before 5 a.m. en route to New York City. The flight plan for the revolutionary plane calls for it to land at New York’s JFK Airport late Saturday.
An unexpected tear discovered on the left wing of the aircraft Saturday has forced the airplane to land earlier than scheduled — but the pilot and aircraft don’t appear to be in danger, officials said.
The pilot noticed balance issues with the wing in the early afternoon Saturday off the coast of Toms River, N.J., said Alenka Zibetto, a spokeswoman for Solar Impulse.
The flight, which had been planned to take a pass by the Statue of Liberty before landing at JFK early Sunday, is heading straight to the airport and is expected to land before midnight Saturday, Zibetto said.
Officials don’t expect the eight-foot tear on the fabric of the lower side of the left wing to worsen.
“This is a leg where everybody is quite moved,” Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots who took turns flying the Solar Impulse across the United States, said shortly after the aircraft was in the air.
He stood on the tarmac, giving an enthusiastic thumbs up, as the plane soared into the morning sky.
Andre Borschberg was piloting the final leg.
Despite the relatively short distance, the last leg was to be a long flight. The slow-flying aircraft was traveling between two of the world’s busiest airports and was required to take off very early in the morning and land very late at night, when air traffic is at a minimum.
The aircraft, powered by some 11,000 solar cells, soars to 30,000 feet while poking along at a top speed of 45 mph. The Solar Impulse left San Francisco in early May and has made stopovers in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dulles.
The cross-country flight is a tuneup for a planned 2015 flight around the globe with an up-graded version of the plane.