The Gossamer Penguin was the first solar powered airplane that could carry a human and take off and fly with solar power. It had a 71-foot wingspan and weighed only 68 pounds without a pilot, it had a low power requirement and thus was an excellent test bed for solar power.
AstroFlight, Inc., of Venice, Calif., provided the power plant for the Gossamer Penguin, an Astro-40 electric motor. Robert Boucher, designer of the Sunrise II, served as a key consultant for both this aircraft and the Solar Challenger. The power source for the initial flights of the Gossamer Penguin consisted of 28 nickel-cadmium batteries, replaced for the solar-powered flights by a panel of 3,920 solar cells capable of producing 541 Watts of power.
The solar-powered Gossamer Penguin flies on Rogers Dry Lake Bed during this flight on July 25, 1979.
This was significant as the first sustained flight of an aircraft relying solely on direct solar power rather than batteries. It provided the designers with practical experience for developing a more advanced, solar-powered aircraft, since the Gossamer Penguin was fragile and had limited controllability. This necessitated its flying early in the day when there were minimal wind and turbulence levels, but the angle of the sun was also low, requiring a panel for the solar cells that could be tilted toward the sun.
The official project pilot was Janice Brown, a Bakersfield school teacher who weighed in at slightly under 100 pounds and was a charter pilot with commercial, instrument, and glider ratings. She checked out in the plane at Shafter and made about 40 flights under battery and solar power there. Wind direction, turbulence, convection, temperature and radiation at Shafter in mid-summer proved to be less than ideal for Gossamer Penguin because takeoffs required no crosswind and increases in temperature reduced the power output from the solar cells.