The Solar Sparrow Touches Down

Solar Impulse 2

On the 9th of March 2015, an airplane took off from an air strip inAbu Dhabi, pointed its nose towards Oman and flew off into the sunset. While that might not be a noteworthy series of events on the surface, it gets interesting when you hear that the airplane in question had no fuel tank and was powered by nothing more than sunshine.

We are, of course, talking about Solar Impulse, the experimental solar-powered aircraft designed by Swiss pair André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard.

This flight marked the six year mark since the duo first flew a solar aircraft – their original flight covered only 350 meters at a cruising height of only one meter. They have come a long way in six short years.

Borschberg and Piccard’s ambitions have grown over the years and have world records in their sights for their current aircraft. They hope that Solar Impulse 2 will become the first piloted fixed-wing aircraft to circumnavigate the globe using only solar power.


An auspicious start

Solar Impulse 2 began its journey in Abu Dhabi back in March this year. It left to the east and was due to arrive back from the west five months later. The first leg was flown by Borschberg and he made the 441 km journey to Muscat in Oman in a hair over 13 hours.

Solar Impulse is admittedly not the fastest of transports. Yet.

From there Borschberg and Piccard rotated in and out of the pilot’s seat, guiding the plane from Oman to India and onwards to Myanmar.

By the end of March they had reached the western edge of China. By the end of May they were ready to leave for Japan. We know that China is unbelievably massive but they definitely hung around longer than they needed to.


Record smashing

Up until this point the duo had flown with solid ground below them. The short hop from China to Japan was over water but it didn’t take too long – a little shy of two days. If something went wrong, there was sure to be something passing nearby.

However, at the edge of Japan lay an exceptionally large watery expanse. Technically it’s called the North Pacific Ocean but we prefer to call it 7,000 km of endless black abyss filled with sharks and the possibility of slow lingering death.

Thankfully the Swiss pair aren’t as fearty as me so they slammed Solar Impulse 2 into gear and set out east.

After 118 hours flying, the pair emerged in Hawaii to rapturous applause and – we hope – a comfy bed.

The flight broke the world records for distance along a course, straight distance and duration for solar aviation. Oh, and it was the longest solo flight ever too.


That’s not all it broke

Over one hundred hours of continuous use will take its toll on even the most robust of systems. Considering how new the technology in Solar Impulse 2 is, it’s impressive that they successfully operated for as long as it did.

Almost five days of continuous use took its toll on the aircraft and it emerged that the batteries had been fried on the crossing.

The solar sparrow safely touched down in Hawaii last week but unfortunately it won’t be taking off in the near future. The news quickly came out that the aircraft would require maintenance but the scale has only just come to light.

The next leg of the journey – Hawaii to Phoenix – will have to wait until 2016. In the meantime, the aircraft will be looked after by the University of Hawaii.

The intrepid pair are not in the least bit perturbed by the setback. They are, after all, trying to do something no one in the world has achieved before.

“Obstacle, or hurdle, is the right word,” says André Borschberg. “Not a failure.”