Flights across the U.S. have become quite commonplace since Calbraith Perry Rodgers completed the first one ever back in 1911, but now a new group of aviation pioneers wants to attempt the same feat with a decidedly more difficult twist thrown in – they can’t use any fuel except for the power of the sun. The Solar Impulse team, led by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, announced last night that it will be taking its solar-powered plane to the skies this summer on a transcontinental flight from San Francisco to New York. If successful, the trip would be the first solar-powered, cross-America flight in history.
The Solar Impulse has made several other successful sun-powered trips in the past but the one planned for this summer will be its first in the U.S. The logistics of the flight are still a bit fuzzy but the team has chosen San Francisco as a starting point and New York as a final destination for the trip. Washington D.C. will also be a stop but the other few cities are still – forgive the pun – up in the air.
The first-of-its-kind plane has 11,628 solar cells on its wings that are capable of powering its four 10-horsepower engines. It has the wingspan of an Airbus A340 but amazingly weighs only 1600kg – about the same as a typical sedan. It flies much slower than a regular commercial jet at 70 km/h but only uses about the same average power as a scooter. And even though the Solar Impulse gets its energy from the sun, it is capable of flying day and night without fuel.
Since the Solar Impulse cannot, as of yet, fly from Switzerland to California in one straight shot (or to be more specific, it cannot accommodate a human being comfortably for such a long trip), the plane will be taken apart and shipped to the States in many small pieces. Gregory Blatt, Solar Impulse’s head of marketing and communication explained to us that the plane will be deconstructed in Zurich in March and packed very, very carefully (as you might imagine) into containers to be loaded into a 747 for transport to California. When it arrives, it will then be reconstructed over the course of three weeks before it takes to the skies in May.
Piccard and Borschberg, both experienced pilots, will take turns flying the Solar Impulse on different legs of the cross-country trip. Each leg will span approximately 20 hours, which is considerably shorter than the Solar Impulse’s successful 26-hour straight flight, which proved it could be flown both when the sun is shining and when it’s not.
Although, if successful, the transcontinental flight will be a recordmaker, the Solar Impulse team has made it clear that they don’t intend to race across the country. They plan to take it slow and even make stops at schools to raise awareness about solar power along the way. “Our goal is to do a coast to coast flight,” Borschberg explained to us. “The goal is not to set records. The goal is to show what you can do with exploration.”
Several corporate partners have already signed on with Solar Impulse, and some of them have seemingly nothing to do with the aviation industry but could nonetheless utilize some of the cutting-edge materials and technologies used to make the plane. One example is elevator company Schindler, which has expressed interested in the lightweight carbon fiber that the Solar Impulse is made of as a way to make their product lighter as well.
This summer’s cross-U.S. trip will be a lead-up to the Solar Impulse’s 2015 attempt to fly around the world in a new, improved version of the plane that is being worked on currently.