Solar Impulse Airplane set to depart Arizona for remainder of its cross country trip

May 21, 2013

This week, the world’s first solar powered airplane is scheduled to leave Arizona in the second leg of its cross country tour, but don’t expect the Solar Impulse to make the trip in record time. 

Solar Impulse Bertrand Piccard is the initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse. He is standing by the cockpit of the plane. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

A recent flight from northern California to Phoenix took 18 hours. Creators of the experimental aircraft simply want to prove it is possible to fly long distances using energy from the sun.

The Solar Impulse is the brainchild of two private investors from Switzerland. Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg are flying their own aircraft coast to coast. 

With temperatures above 100 degrees at the Phoenix airport, the plane is parked inside a huge, air conditioned tent. The plane only travels about 58 miles an hour, but Piccard said he is happy with that.

“The goal is not to arrive as soon as possible because what is interesting with Solar Impulse is not the speed, it’s the duration," Piccard said.

The one seat plane is powered by four electric propellers. The pilot wears a parka to stay warm and an oxygen mask to breathe 30,000 feet up. It uses 12,000 solar cells made of material as thin as a human hair, and the airplane only weighs about as much as a prius. 

The solar panels cover the top of the plane’s really long wings.  Piccard said they are as wide as the wingspan of a 747.

“You can theoretically stay airborne forever because during the day the sun is enough to power four electrical engines and to load the batteries so it can continue to fly at night," Piccard said.

Flying at low speed to Dallas during the next leg of the trip has some risks. Piccard said the rash or tornadoes in Oklahoma and Texas has put him on edge, but he vows to finish the trip.

“We have extremely good weathermen. One of them guided me when we made a non-stop hot air balloon ride around the world in 1999, so I really trust him, andwe will only take off when we have no tornadoes on the way," Piccard said.

The inventors of Solar Impulse acknowledge planes powered by the sun will not take over the aviation industry. They just want to get consumers excited about going green.

 “What we’re doing is an investment to encourage other people to use the same technologies as us in order to reduce their energy consumption for their house or for their cars," Piccard said.

The plane has been parked longer than expected at Phoenix Sky Harbor because of poor weather in the country’s mid-section.  It is scheduled to complete its cross country flight next month in New York City.

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