Photo: Milko Vuille
In a historic and environmental achievement, the Solar Impulse II has completed its first full trek around the globe.
The solar-powered aircraft made headlines last June while crossing the Atlantic in what was set to be a four-day excursion to Abu Dhabi, the final stopping point of its planetary expedition. That journey has since come to an end, and co-pilot Bertrand Piccard couldn’t be happier.
“More than an achievement in the history of aviation, Solar Impulse has made history in energy,” he exclaimed to a cheering crowd. “I’m sure that within the next ten years we’ll see electric airplanes carrying 50 passengers on short to medium-haul flights.”
Voyages around the world have been made before, but the majority have required standard fuel sources to get the job done. The Solar Impulse II is a fuel-free craft, depending primarily on the sun to get its groove on. The flight has now been completed in the highest of fashions.
“The future is clean,” says Piccard. “The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further.”
The trip began in Abu Dhabi in March of 2015. The plane has crossed four continents, three seas and two oceans. The flight’s longest stretch occurred from Hawaii from Japan, covering over 5,500 miles in nearly 120 hours, the longest uninterrupted flight on record. 17 stops were made along the way in places like Cairo and Seville before the plane settled in Abu Dhabi last Tuesday, finishing where it once began. Co-pilots Piccard and Andre Borschberg arrived in the capital city to a roaring crowd, completing the first of what could potentially be several flights to halve carbon dioxide, the primary culprit behind climate change. The experience has been a dream for Piccard since 1999.
Particularly impressive is the design of the plane. The Solar Impulse II has the wingspan of a Boeing 747, yet weighs less than a family-sized car. Within the plane’s wings are nearly 20,000 solar cells that are used to power its engines, with excess energy stored separately in batteries.
In spite of all the grandeur and glory, Piccard admitted there were rough patches. Several times, the plane was threatened by harsh weather, causing various groundings that sometimes lasted for months on end in different countries.
The plane also lacks appropriate velocity. Both pilots were required to demonstrate extreme patience covering long distances at top speeds of no more than 56 miles per hour and at altitudes nearing 30,000 feet in a cockpit the size of a public telephone box. The men were often required to wear oxygen masks and could only sleep for about 20 minutes at a time. Taking these factors into account, solar planes aren’t likely to be available for commercial use for some time.
In the end, however, it wasn’t just about promoting clean energy, but presenting to the world a positive face and showing that differences can be made.
“We were facing the oceans,” says Piccard. “We had to build up this mindset, not just the plane and technology.”