A solar-powered plane landed in California Saturday night, April 23, 2016, to complete the Pacific segment of its circumnavigation of the world. Pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg left Hawaii Thursday for their latest hop on Solar Impulse 2, nine months after their winter layover on the island due to a damaged battery and lack of sunlight. Their arrival in California came in less than three days, on depleted power.
According to CTV, Solar Impulse 2 made it to Hawaii in July and stayed to repair some battery damage sustained during the trip from Japan. In the prior phase of the journey, the crew had to divert to Japan due to bad weather and a wing problem while trying to reach Hawaii from Nanjing, China. It took another month before weather conditions allowed the plane to leave Nagoya in central Japan for Hawaii.
The carbon-fiber aircraft’s weight of more than 5,000 pounds makes the ideal flight speed about 28 miles per hour. However, at that weight, the solar-powered plane is capable of going twice as fast during the day when the sun’s rays are intense. Seventeen thousand solar cells embedded in wings that stretch wider than those of a Boeing 747 sustain the propellers and charge the batteries. Nighttime flight relies on stored energy.
After three more stops in the United States, the solar-powered plane will embark on its jaunt across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
According to CNN, Solar Impulse 2 touched down in Mountain View, California, just before midnight. Powered by his belief in the technological break-through, Swiss explorer and psychiatrist Piccard shared his sense of awe about piloting the plane.
“It’s a new era. It’s not science fiction. It’s today. It exists and clean technologies can do the impossible… I think innovation and pioneering must continue. It must continue for better quality of life, for clean technologies, for renewable energy; this is where the pioneers can really express themselves and be successful.”
The plane’s other pilot, Piccard’s business partner Andre Borschberg, was just as enthusiastic. The Swiss engineer shared his opinion with CNN by phone just before landing the solar-powered plane.
“It’s a demonstration… I’m very happy that everything works extremely well and the airplane is functioning as it should, that the tech is reliable.”
USA Today reports that the itinerary guiding Solar Impulse 2 will likely take it to two locations in the Midwest before its arrival in New York City by June. Once powered up, the plane will undertake its two final flights over the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea before finally landing back in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, to complete its circumnavigation of the world.
Solar Impulse 2, while a game changer, is not the world’s first official flight in a solar-powered, man-carrying aircraft. This distinction belongs to the Mauro Solar Riser which flew on April 29, 1979. Built by Larry Mauro, this first solar-powered aircraft was based on the UFM Easy Riser bi-plane hang glider. Its flight-time capability was three to five minutes, following a 1.5-hour charge to get it up to a gliding altitude.
Another early bird is the Solar Challenger, which flew 163 miles from Paris to England, for 5 hours and 23 minutes on July 7, 1981. The solar-powered plane was designed by Dr. Paul MacCready to set an altitude record of 14,300 feet.
While the Solar Impulse 2 encountered weather challenges and mechanical difficulties, its tandem of pilots remained unfazed. Piccard told reporters in California what he thought of being airborne in the solar-powered plane.
“You know there was a moment in the night, I was watching the reflection of the moon on the ocean and I was thinking, ‘I’m completely alone in this tiny cockpit and I feel completely confident.'”
[Photo by Handout/Getty Images]