Solar-powered Airplane Visits 'Birthplace of Aviation' On Its Way Around The Globe

Solar Impulse 2 is pulled into place at Dayton International Airport after a flight from Tulsa. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)
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by Tony Ganzer, ideastream

Late Saturday night there was a strange hum and much applause at Dayton International Airport. The hum came from the electric motors of a solar-powered airplane switching off after a flight from Oklahoma. 

Solar Impulse 2 is a Swiss-made airplane trekking across the globe to promote clean energy and a spirit of innovation.  It looks like a giant glider, with its 263 foot wingspan covered by more than 17,000 solar panels.

“…we have our pilots, we have some members of the Wright Brothers family which obviously has some historical significance…”

The plane made the 17-hour flight to the Birthplace of Aviation as part of an around the world voyage that began in Abu Dhabi in March of last year.  Following a 5-day trip from Japan to Hawaii, the plane was forced to stay in Oahu after the battery system sustained heat damage. 

Bertrand Piccard is one of the project’s co-founders, and one of its pilots, who was part of a team to complete the first non-stop around-the-world voyage in a balloon in 1999.  Piccard said in Dayton that it’s the fate of pioneers to go through difficult moments:

PICCARD: “Exploration is when you go through all these unknown moments, these doubts and these question marks, this is what stimulates innovation and creativity.  This is what drives us with Andre, to do something that has never been done before, and prove that it can be possible, and if it is possible to fly with no fuel of course the world can also be run with clean technologies, be cleaner and more efficient.”

Solar Impulse’s other co-founder and pilot is André Borschberg, a former Swiss fighter pilot.  He was the pilot for the 5-day flight across the Pacific, and back in 2010 he flew the plane’s first night flight over Switzerland, using only battery power captured from the sun. 

Back then, I interviewed Borschberg during that flight, and asked him to describe the experience in the plane:

BORSCHBERG in 2010: (over radio) “…watching the stars in the sky, looking at all this light down there, thinking that we’ll be going through the night, and thinking about seeing the sun rising very soon, I think this is going to be incredible.”

In Dayton, I asked Borschberg to talk about how the experience has changed since then after he’s crossed so much of the world:

BORSCHBERG: “We are not done yet, I think every step is important, every step is emotional, but I think what is really special in this project is the interactions that we develop over time now with each stop everywhere.  But the reception we have in the United States, the welcome, the pioneering spirit which exists here, is something which goes into our heart directly.”


Solar Impulse's Bertrand Piccard (left) and André Borschberg (right) in Dayton. (Tony Ganzer / ideastream)

Near Solar Impulse’s inflatable hangar in Dayton was André Borschberg’s wife, Yasemin.  She also told me about how the experience has evolved through the years, even through some fearful moments:

YASEMIN BORSCHBERG: “Proper preparation is the antidote for the fear, so yeah I feel very comfortable when he flies because we know the plane is sustainable, and Andre can go ahead for five days and five nights, and Bertrand he did also from Hawaii to San Francisco for three days.  So we know that our pilots are in good shape and are motivated to do more.”

Solar Impulse is planning to leave Dayton on Tuesday, heading for Pennsylvania, New York and then across the Atlantic.  The team hopes to reach Abu Dhabi this summer, showing Ohio, the US, and the world that the technology exists to cross the globe in a plane powered only by the sun.

 

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