As Solar Impulse completes its North American flight and begins the voyage across the Atlantic toward Europe or North Africa, and finally its starting point in Abu Dhabi, momentum is building toward culmination of this groundbreaking achievement.
Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg have recently achieved the first round-the-world solar flight, powered only by the sun, with no fuel or polluting emissions.
Bertrand Piccard, initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse 2, believes that this record-breaking journey around the globe will “encourage everyone to use these same energy-efficient solutions on the ground in their daily lives for mobility, construction, lighting, heating, cooling and more.”
In line with the Piccard family tradition of scientific exploration and environmental protection, Solar Impulse succeeded in demonstrating that clean technologies can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
Piccard believes that the record-breaking journey around the globe will “encourage everyone to use these same energy-efficient solutions on the ground in their daily lives for mobility, construction, lighting, heating, cooling and more.”
The plane finished its voyage around the world in late July, reaching its final destination in Abu Dhabi, where the adventure first began.
The Initiative: Overview
To look at the Solar Impulse project as simply a play toward what might be on aviation’s horizon is to miss the point. Yes, its chariot is an airplane without fuel tanks, and that’s likely to turn heads, but the initiative is so much more.
The round-the-world flight was engineered to showcase an airborne laboratory — an incubator — for technologies that are aimed at solving some of society’s most vexing problems related to energy, infrastructure and climate change. “The primary purpose of this adventure is to demonstrate that modern, clean technologies can achieve the impossible,” says Bertrand Piccard, initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse 2. He believes that the current journey around the globe will “encourage everyone to use these same energy-efficient solutions on the ground in their daily lives for mobility, construction, lighting, heating, cooling and more.”
On the adventure is also the project CEO, co-founder and pilot André Borschberg, who last year flew the craft on a record-setting flight from Japan to Hawaii. He piloted the solar airplane for five consecutive days and nights over the remote expanses of the Pacific Ocean. “An airplane with perpetual flight endurance, without fuel, like the Solar Impulse, shows what could be achieved by pushing forward the frontiers of technology and exploring every possible strategy, right from the design phase to the mission itself,” says Borschberg. The crossing was hailed as a turning point in aviation and energy history.
This adventure is also dependent on the support of many private partners. Moët Hennessy, as Official Partner and Host Partner of the Monaco Mission Control Center, has teamed up with Solar Impulse to bring festivity to the success of every flight and to ultimately celebrate sustainability and innovative technology.
The Airplane: Tech and Specs
To build an all-new aircraft is no small feat. Names like Wilbur and Orville Wright, Charles Lindbergh and countless others come to mind. These are the folks who pushed technology — and humanity — to achieve things that many thought beyond the reach of man. In short: They made our dream of flying come true. Their lessons are not lost on the Solar Impulse team.
Indeed, the Solar Impulse project is an exercise in tough choices and truly understanding what’s essential for super-efficient flight. The actual airplane is built with a wingspan of 236 feet, more than that of the gargantuan Boeing 747. In total, its carbon-fiber wings and body weigh no more than a luxury sedan.
But the real ingenuity in the design is that the aircraft takes off weighing as much as it does when it lands. Unlike conventional airplanes, which need to carry heavy fuel loads to achieve and maintain flight, Solar Impulse refuels as it flies. Fixed to the top of its wings are more than 17,000 solar cells, which soak up the sun’s rays while the airplane is cruising at up to 28,000 feet. The energy is stored in batteries that power four electric motors.
The aircraft has space for only one pilot, thus the two aviators who are flying it around the globe take turns navigating, alternating at stops along the way. Both the men and the machine are performing in extreme ways. The longest single flight, piloted by Borschberg, was 117 hours and 52 minutes — nearly five days. Testing the limits of the equipment is all part of the journey, says Borschberg: “The technologies we have on board Solar Impulse 2 can be used to build unmanned aircraft, able to fly six months in the stratosphere, to replace a part of what satellites do in a cheaper and more sustainable way.”
The Route of Solar Impulse
In March 2015, Solar Impulse 2 lifted off from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and pointed its nose eastward. The international team supporting the mission was ready to break records and show the world the power of an airplane that was built with very little power (quite intentionally). There’s no hiding it — the trip for this airplane has been long, but it was never meant to be anything but.
If you’re noticing paradoxes emerging in the journey of this aircraft, then count yourself perceptive. In spite of what we know about airplanes — the assumptions that they’re fast and roaring — Solar Impulse 2 was built to cut a gentler, quieter and more patient path through the sky on its round-the-world trip.
The first leg touched down in Muscat, Oman, on March 9, 2015 after half a day in the air. The next morning, it was off on its second leg to India, then to China, Japan and finally Hawaii for a winter layover. Solar Impulse 2 completed its Pacific crossing and landed in San Francisco on April 21, 2016.
Recently, the airplane’s flight path brought it to America’s heartland. After that, a stop in New York City before it will again loft itself across one of the world’s great oceans. Solar Impulse has planned touchdowns in Europe or North Africa (depending on flight conditions) before it completes the journey back in Abu Dhabi.
While it was never the team’s intention to have the plane in the sky every day, the aircraft can’t fly in all types of weather. Sometimes the elements keep the plane on the ground longer than planned, but Solar Impulse 2 and the people behind her keep finding innovative and inspiring ways to chase the horizon.