(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.