Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered plane that started its historic round-the-world journey in Abu Dabhi, Arab Emirates, in March 2015, made a 4:00 a.m. landing at New York’s JFK Airport on June 11 after a triumphant circle over the Statue of Liberty. Weighing slightly more than a family car, Solar Impulse 2 has the wingspan of a commercial airliner and is making the round-the-world trip without a drop of fuel.
The purpose of this flight? To chart uncharted territory: travel exclusively with renewable energy as proof to the world that we do not need to depend on carbon fuel. The plane was created by Solar Impulse, a company started by Swiss dreamers, pilots, and adventurers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg.
Solar Impulse 2 has already travelled through Asia and North America. New York is its final destination before returning to Abu Dhabi. The voyage, originally expected to be completed within one year, was prolonged by equipment trouble after its record-breaking, almost five-day long trip from Japan to Hawaii. The world’s longest solo flight was piloted by Borschberg, who brought Solar Impulse 2 to New York from Allentown, Penn.
“I cannot wait to see the lights of the New York Harbor beneath me,” Borschberg said in a phone interview from Pennsylvania just before starting out for New York.
“As a kid, I was fascinated by the pioneers — the people who were the first to go and explore the unknown. I also loved flying. I am an entrepreneur as well, so in the end it all came together for me; and here I am flying the first no-fuel plane.” The “no fuel’ part means that the flight can be indefinite, and limited only by human capability.
Borschberg and Piccard trained diligently, trying to come up with optimal ways of not falling asleep or getting totally exhausted in the air. “I cannot stand up in the cockpit, but I worked out certain routines from my Yoga exercises that allow me to relax my body and concentrate my energy. Only when you test yourself, can you find out who you truly are,” Borschberg said. “Being in the air by yourself with no limit is liberating. You have to be able to be in the moment, to be present all the time, you cannot pretend, you are totally honest. Once you realize it and master it, you can be at peace with yourself. That is when you know you are on top of the world.”
The modern world does not allow many moments like these. On Solar Impulse 2, there is no room for pretense. Everything is as real as it can possibly get. It is just you, your wings, and the sun, powering you up.
When asked if there was ever a funny moment in his travels, Borschberg said: “On my flight from Japan to Hawaii I kept pushing for a longer trip. Even when I finally got there and realized that the islands would reveal themselves soon beneath me, I decided to fly more, to go around them. I got into a big argument with my engineers. They were against it. But I persevered and flew more. That is when I realized that I was crying. I was crying because I just wanted to be there more, to fly more, to see if I could do it… and then I started laughing, because here I was, alone in this plane and crying over I did not know what. So I laughed… Honestly, this whole project, and many like it, are more about psychology than anything else. It took us a long time to create the right team of people to bring it to fruition, but creating the team was winning half the fight.”
It took more than 12 years to finish the first plane — Solar Impulse 1. When it finally took to the skies, it broke records for length, height, and endurance for solo sun-powered travel. It flew over the United States in 2013. The second plane took a little more than three years to build with all the improvements needed to perfect the technology, enabling more historic breakthroughs.
The wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is just a little shy of that of Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner. Unlike the commercial giant, the carbon-fiber Solar Impulse weighs only 5,100 pounds (2,300 kg). It has a non-pressurized one-person cockpit and advanced avionics, including an autopilot that helps in transcontinental journeys. The wings are based on a customized carbon-fiber honeycomb sandwich structure that was created in partnership with the best sail boat builders in the field. They carry solar PV cells that get charged during the day and allow the plane to climb as high as 39,000 ft (12, 000 m).
Energy is stored in four lithium-ion batteries that allow the plane to fly at night, when it slowly descends to conserve power. This mode of travel is 97 percent energy efficient. Only 3 percent of energy is wasted, as compared to the average car wasting 30 percent of its fuel. This alone should make people aware that the advantages of solar travel are not only good for the environment, but can be good for their pockets.
“Synergy is key,” Borschberg said. “For example, it took me a long time to convince my engineers to work with the boat people. Everyone always thinks that they know better, that their idea is the best. It takes an open mind to create something like this. It takes a lot of open minds on every side of the equation. It also takes confidence in yourself and trust in others. Pushing to the limit and beyond and holding back when needed was the art we perfected along with perfecting Solar Impulse planes. This is how personalities grow and develop. This is how people truly find out who they are and what they are capable of achieving.”
Thousands of people come to watch Solar Impulse fly. Many of them are young people who will be in charge of our planet in the near future. Two dreamers from Switzerland are not trying to make a point of selling us on solar aviation. That future is far away. What they are doing is making us aware of the endless possibilities of our unique and endless power source — the sun — and our no less unique and endless inner power source — the spirit to move forward, explore, and “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Lead image credit: Solar Impulse.