Solar Impulse Completes Historic Flight From Japan to Hawaii Without Fuel

 (3BL Media/Justmeans) - Back in January, I was in Abu Dhabi, where I had the opportunity to see the Solar Impulse airplane and meet the pilots as they prepared to begin their historic round-the-world flight, the first of its kind.

On July 3rd, I watched on my computer, courtesy of the Solar Impulse website as the plane landed in Hawaii, completing a 5-day Pacific crossing from Nagoya, Japan. Andre Borschberg’s four day and 22 hour flight was the longest solo flight in aviation history. Of course, a flight like this would never have been possible with any kind of conventional airplane, because of the amount of fuel that would be required. In all, the flight covered 5,128 miles.

The crossing had been postponed twice as the weather failed to cooperate. The ultralight airplane, with a wingspan comparable to a 747, yet weighing little more than an SUV, requires reasonably stable weather conditions to operate in. Throughout the journey, the team has carried the banner of clean energy. Borschberg’s Solar Impulse partner, Bertrand Piccard, was on hand to greet him as the plane landed, just outside of Honolulu. It was Piccard who had the original vision back in 1999, to build a solar airplane that could fly around the world.

In order to make the most of the energy stored in its batteries during the day, the plane climbs to its maximum altitude of 28,000 at dusk, storing an additional two hours of gliding time.

A number of technology companies including Solvay, Schindler, Omega, Bayer, Altran, and Google have sponsored the project and developed critical components to improve the energy efficiency and reduce the weight of the plane, without which the mission would not have been possible. Indeed none of the conventional aircraft manufacturers got involved in the project, because, frankly, they didn’t believe it could be done.  Among the dozens of innovations produced by the project were ultralight insulation that will soon be going into refrigerators, improvements to motors and batteries, and the development of light but strong plastic parts to replace heavier metal ones used in conventional aircraft.

Borschberg who sat alone in the tiny cockpit for nearly five days, with only ten 20-minute naps per day, performed a remarkable feat of endurance. The plane crossed two cold fronts in its final day, which subjected the plane to considerable turbulence.

Why would anyone do such a thing? Does anyone really believe that solar power can someday power airplanes loaded with passengers? That’s admittedly a far-off dream, but it’s not as far-fetched as it might sound. Airbus has already announced a two-passenger electric plane, the E-Fan that will, in fact, make a debut flight across the English Channel next week. The company has already announced that it plans to have a 70 passenger electric regional jet on the market in twenty years. These jets will carry some fuel onboard to keep the batteries charged, but the resulting aircraft will be far cleaner, and quieter than today’s airplanes. No reason why they couldn’t sport solar panels on the wings for additional energy or take advantage of some of the other breakthrough that Solar Impulse has spurred.

In the meantime, the Solar Impulse’s journey is far from over. After completing eight flight legs so far, covering a distance of 11,639 miles, the plane still needs to fly from Hawaii to Phoenix, the planned next stop. It will then make another stop somewhere in the Midwest. Then it will continue on to NYC, before crossing the Atlantic to some location on Europe’s west coast. The final leg will take it back to Abu Dhabi where it started. Many of the stopover points are as yet undetermined to allow for weather conditions.

The Solar Impulse program has literally taken the promise of clean, renewable energy to new heights. There can be no doubt that it has captured the imagination of many. Its main cargo has been the message that says “we can realize a clean energy future,” and so far that cargo has been delivered safely.