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Journey Over, Solar Plane Takes Its Place in the Sun

September 05, 1990|JENIFER WARREN and EDITH STANLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SPOT, N.C. — A Riverside County man concluded history's first coast-to-coast flight in a solar-powered airplane here Tuesday, abandoning plans to fly nine more miles to his original destination because of high winds.

Eric Raymond, 33, said winds gusting up to 35 m.p.h. persuaded him to scrub the last leg of his journey and instead take his plane by trailer to historic Kill Devil Hills, the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk where Orville and Wilbur Wright pioneered engine-powered aviation 87 years ago.

"I landed basically at the beach yesterday," Raymond said Tuesday, one month and two days after his transcontinental trek began in the California desert. "With the forecast for winds and storms, it doesn't look like it is worth flying the last nine miles."

Including Monday's 32-mile flight to Spot, where a storm forced him to land on a farmer's turf field, Raymond logged 2,467 miles during 119 hours and 23 minutes in the air.

Those unofficial figures easily make Raymond--a national hang-gliding champion from Lake Elsinore--a world record holder in solar-powered aviation. The longest previous flight--in a craft designed by Paul MacCready of Pasadena--was across the English Channel in the early 1980s.

Raymond, a lithe, bespectacled fellow, said he is not interested in records or recognition. He said his mission was to enlighten people about the potential of traveling with the help of the sun.

"Solar is already quite practical for sporting aircraft," said Raymond, who built his 195-pound plane called Sun-Seeker, which resembles a giant dragonfly, in his garage. "Eventually, if the technology keeps improving . . . you will start seeing bigger and bigger and faster airplanes that are solar-powered."

Crowds of tourists, reporters and local aviators gathered at historic Kill Devil Hills on Monday and Tuesday, anticipating the pilot's arrival. Some were disappointed when they learned Sun-Seeker would not be landing amid the rippling sea oats surrounding First Flight Airport, but most seemed impressed by Raymond's feat.

"What Eric has done is an example of creative engineering," said Gene O'Bleness, executive director of the First Flight Society, a group of pilots and aviation history buffs. His group, along with the Kitty Hawk Kites, held a cake-and-champagne reception for Raymond on Tuesday night and presented him with a leather bomber jacket with "Sun-Seeker" embroidered on the back.

Raymond's journey began in the desert east of Palm Springs on July 16. Two days later, Sun-Seeker--which uses solar cells to power an electric motor used during takeoffs and landings--was damaged in Lordsburg, N.M., forcing the crew to return to Lake Elsinore for repairs.

The flight recommenced Aug. 2, and Raymond hoped to reach Kitty Hawk in 10 days. Poor flying conditions--ranging from thunderstorms to head winds that at times blew the feather-light craft backward--slowed the pilot's progress. The plane was grounded by foul weather on 10 days.

Still, the thrill of the journey, with its potpourri of sights and encounters, overshadowed frustrations caused by the sluggish pace.

"It's nice to fly across the country," Raymond said, recalling how the panorama changed gradually from desert to woods to farmland and mountains.

Seeking to avoid big cities with crowded skies, Raymond plotted a southerly course that took him through some of America's most lonely reaches. Among the crew's nighttime stopovers were such places as Cornudas, Tex., Chanute, Kan., Sedalia, Mo., and West Liberty, Ky.

The townsfolk and airport operators, Raymond said, were wonderfully hospitable. In Littlefield, Tex., the ground crew following Raymond accidentally wrecked the trailer needed to haul Sun-Seeker back to California. The local Chamber of Commerce president sent a team of mechanics to help out.

"We were thinking, 'Oh boy, what is this going to cost?' " recalled Raymond's wife, Aida, who followed her husband across the country in a chase plane. The local official, a glider pilot, refused to accept any money for the work.

After resuming the trip, stiff winds and weak thermals--the updrafts of warm air that lift Sun-Seeker to soaring altitude--forced back-to-back landings in grassy fields in Missouri. The plane, made mostly of carbon fiber, suffered only minor damage to one wing that struck a bush.

Raymond spent the long hours in his tiny cockpit--which measures only 21 inches wide--reading maps, lunching on the fruit and cookies his wife packed each day and maneuvering his craft in the wind. The only discomfort was the heat.

"I have an air vent, but I close it when I'm trying to make the most distance," he said.

A sportsman at heart, Raymond took advantage of the fierce winds Tuesday and went sail boarding. After returning home, he plans to start on his next project: a solar-powered dirigible capable of flying around the world.

Warren reported from Riverside and Stanley reported from North Carolina.

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