Solar airplane begins first leg of trip across America
May 4, 2013 8:00 AM
Josh Edelson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
A member of the Solar Impulse crew rides an electric bike alongside a solar-powered aircraft Friday as it takes off from Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, near San Francisco. The first ever manned airplane that can fly by day or night on the sun's power alone is on a trip across the United States. Solar Impulse is piloted by Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard.
By W.J. Hennigan Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES -- With a wingspan of a Boeing Co. 747 jumbo jet, a spindly solar-powered aircraft took to the sky Friday from Moffett Federal Airfield, near San Francisco, on a pioneering flight across the country.
The goal is not speed, because it's traveling a leisurely 43 mph, or endurance, because it's making the trip piecemeal. Rather, the goal is to showcase that the trip can be made at all without the use of fuel.
The plane, called Solar Impulse, has an immense 208-foot wing covered with 12,000 solar cells that soak up the sun's rays and power the plane's four electric motors, while simultaneously charging batteries. That means the plane can keep flying at night.
"All the big pioneers of the 20th century have tried to fly coast to coast across America," said co-pilot, and one of the plane's founders, Bertrand Piccard.
The first leg is an excruciatingly long, 18-hour trip from Moffett Field to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. "It's never boring, because it's the most revolutionary airplane that exists -- an airplane that flies day and night with no fuel," Mr. Piccard said in an interview as he traveled at 13,000 feet above Northern California.
He took off from Moffett Field about 6 a.m. Pacific time and was set to land in Phoenix at 1 a.m. Mountain time today.
The solar plane was created by Mr. Piccard and engineer Andre Borschberg, both Swiss nationals. The two have raised money since 2003 from corporate sponsors and investors, such as Swiss watch manufacturer Omega and Belgian chemicals group Solvay.
Solar Impulse flew for the first time in 2009, soaring 3 feet off the ground for 28 seconds. Work continued, and by the next year, Solar Impulse made a 26-hour flight in Switzerland on the world's first solar-powered night flight.
In 2011, the plane made its first international flight from Switzerland to Belgium to France. Last year, it took on the first solar-powered intercontinental flight, flying from Europe to North Africa in eight legs over two months.
Now comes the U.S. cross-country voyage, expected to take another two months. After Phoenix, there are stops in Dallas, St. Louis, Washington and finally at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Each flight leg will take about 19 to 25 hours, with 10-day stops in each city.
Solar Impulse can't go through clouds and, because it weighs only about as much as a car, is vulnerable to bad weather. Its creators said solar planes will never replace fuel-powered commercial flights. But the goal is to showcase solar power's potential and raise awareness for the adoption of clean technology.
"What we look for is to have a new milestone in this very exciting history of aviation that can attract interest of the people, of the political world, of the media, and show that with renewable energies and clean technology for energy efficiency, we can achieve impossible things," Mr. Piccard said. Organizers urge the public to follow the trip on their website, www.solarimpulse.com.
Everything on the plane has been designed to save energy. It weighs just 3,527 pounds, due to lightweight structure, flight instrumentation and engines. Four pods are fixed under the wings. Each contains an electric motor with a maximum power output of 10 horsepower.
Because the aircraft has only one seat, Mr. Piccard and Mr. Borschberg plan on taking turns as pilot. They are planning to fly around the world in a second plane in 2015. That flight will take place more than 20 days and 20 nights, with several stops.