Photo: Milko Vuille
The airplane is one of Man’s greatest inventions, but the attendant pollution is nothing to brag about. Relying on toxic fuels to get the job done, a single jet flight can release several tons of carbon dioxide per person. Sure, our travel times are cut in half, but in the end, we have rising temperatures and a weakened atmosphere to deal with.
But that may soon change. The Solar Impulse 2 is the first fully solar-powered plane to take to the skies. The aircraft recently made its first trip across the Atlantic, from New York to Spain, and will soon head for Abu Dhabi, the final stopping point in what is slated to be a four-day excursion.
“The Atlantic is the symbolic part of the flight,” said pilot Bertrand Piccard. “It is symbolic because all the means of transportation have always tried to cross the Atlantic, the first steamboats, the first airplane, the first balloons, the first airships, and today, it is the first solar-powered airplane… But the goal is not to change aviation as Charles Lindbergh did, but to inspire people to use [renewable] technologies and show people they can use these technologies every day to have a better quality of life.”
At present, the Impulse holds limited commercial appeal. Carrying only one passenger, the aircraft also lacks appropriate speed, and covers about half the flight distance of a Boeing 747. The benefits, however, are certainly there to expand upon. Lighter than a jumbo jet, the Impulse can fly for days rather than hours, and its carbon pollutants stand at a whopping zero emissions.
As the man “behind the wheel,” Piccard’s first claim-to-fame arrived nearly 20 years ago, when he made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world. Despite the dangers and the length of the trip, Piccard feels it was easy by comparison.
“When I flew around the world non-stop in a balloon with Brian Jones, we were two in the capsule,” he states. “There was a lot of space and it was heated, so in that sense it was easier… It is more challenging when you are alone: you can rely on the team on the ground by satellite phone, but otherwise it is up to you.”
While traveling above, the seasoned adventurist had to be on high-alert and adhere to a schedule that allowed little time for sleep. Piccard could climb nearly 30,000 feet during the day, but would drop to 5,000 feet at night to conserve energy (the speed of the plane generally depended on the brightness of the sun). Piccard also had to deal with harsh winds, heavy cloud systems, and a seat that doubled as his toilet – not exactly the most comfortable experience in the record books.
Still, Piccard doesn’t regret a single minute, and looks forward to finishing his trip in the coming days.
“Every minute is a minute of suspense, a minute of challenge,” he explains, “and the fact I can stay [airborne] without fuel or pollution for four days and four nights is something so new… I have the impression I am in a science fiction story and it’s like I am already in the future. And then I look outside and I say, well it’s not the future, it’s now.”