Swiss Pilots Harness The Sun To Fly Around The World

In Greek mythology, Icarus flew too close to the sun, and fell into the sea and drowned after his wings melted. In modern mythology, the quest to fly by harnessing the sun is closer to reality with the announcement that the first solar-powered flight around the world is set to depart either late next month or in early March.

Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg will commence their historic adventure in Solar Impulse 2 from Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, and make a total of 12 planned stops during their five-month, 22,000-mile journey. Other stops will include Muscat, Oman; Varanasi, India; Mandalay, Myanmar; Nanjing, China; Honolulu, Hawaii; Phoenix, Arizona; and New York City. Solar Impulse 2 will then cross the Atlantic Ocean and stop somewhere in southern Europe before embarking on the final leg of its journey back to Abu Dhabi. The trip will take 25 flight days spread out over five months.

The single-seat plane, which made its maiden flight in Switzerland last June, is made of carbon fiber and weighs in around the same amount a small SUV does, at 5,060 pounds. It has a 236-foot wingspan, which is wider than a Boeing 747. It will fly at speeds between 30 and 60 miles per hour.

The design and construction of Solar Impulse 2 have taken 12 years, according to Borschberg, the co-pilot. The wings are equipped with 17,000 solar cells, which supply four electric motors with renewable energy. During the day, the solar cells recharge lithium ion batteries, allowing the plan to fly at night.

Piccard and Borschberg are no strangers to aviation record-setting. In 2010, with Borschberg at the wheel, Solar Impulse 1 became the first plane ever to fly 24 hours on nothing but solar-power generation. Then, in 2012, the two pilots flew the same plane from Spain to Morocco, becoming the first to fly a manned sun-powered flight between two continents.

Solar Impulse 2 has just one seat, so its designers acknowledge it isn’t commercially viable, but that really isn’t the point, they say. The point is to demonstrate that solar-powered flight is possible, and to promote clean-energy technology. Perhaps sometime in the future, this technology can potentially be harnessed for commercial travel.