This Ginormous Single-Seater Solar-Powered Plane Is Breaking All the Records

Will.Nye.AmJune 30, 2015767 Views
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The Solar Impulse is a single-seater airplane powered only by sunlight. Right now it’s a little over halfway from Japan to Hawaii, flying over the Pacific Ocean. If and when it arrives in Hawaii in four days, it will have broken the all-time world record for longest-duration solo flight, along with greatest distance traveled by a strictly solar-powered aircraft.

There is no backup fuel. If the craft hits weather and the solar cells can’t slurp up enough sunlight to keep it in the air, the pilot Andre Borschberg is fully prepared to bail out. He brought a dinghy along for the ride, as well as a few days worth of floating-in-the-middle-of-nowhere supplies.

Weather is a real concern. The Solar Impulse has been flying about the world since Mar. 9, when it took off from Abu Dhabi for a 13-hour flight to Muscat, Oman. From there it hopped to Amedabhad, India, then to Varanasi, and on to Myanmar and Chongqing, China, followed by Nanjing. It was supposed to fly from Nanjing to Kalaeloa, Hawaii on May 31, but meteorologists diverted the flight to Nagoya, Japan due to inclement weather. It finally took off from Nagoya on Jun. 28 at 6:00 p.m. GMT and is now past the point of no return to Hawaii. [Cue corresponding number from Phantom of the Opera, for all you musical theatre degenerates.)

I told you, thing is yooooge.

Bear in mind that sometimes the sun isn’t out — like, say, oh, at night. The solar cells do need to be more than replenished during the day, which it is designed to do, to an extent. Which brings us to another world record: the Solar Impulse is the first airplane — single-seater or otherwise — to fly both day and night on just solar power. Other records already set by the craft include those pertaining to absolute height (30300 ft.), duration (26 hrs. 10 min. 19 sec.), free distance (936 mi.), height gain (28690 ft.), free distance along a course (693.5 mi.), straight distance with pre-declared waypoints (861 mi.), distance along a course with pre-declared waypoints: (924 mi.), and, oh, Very First Flight Evar of a manned solar-powered aircraft, according to the company’s website.

Borschberg is the chair of the company. His qualifications for ruining world flight records for everyone else include being a doctor, psychiatrist, pilot, and first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon. His business partner Bertrand Piccard is an engineer and fighter pilot who presumably will one day be known only as Jean-Luc Picard‘s great great great great great great grandfather. (They no doubt will have dropped one of the c’s at Ellis Island Prime.)

Here they are drinking their eleventh glass of sponsor Moët Hennessy pre-flight.

One of the goals of the two men in undertaking this experimental mission is to push the limits of “green” energy, naturally. As such, the craft is as light as a Jeep. The cockpit is about the size of a phone booth; Borschberg said he does yoga and meditates to stay not-crazy during the long flight legs. All of the materials in the plane — and even in Borschberg’s flight suit itself — are designed to maximize density and minimize weight, making the utmost of every blessed photon captured from the Sun.

Could you check to make sure the oven is off?

Assuming all goes well and Borschberg touches down on dry land in Hawaii, he and the Solar Impulse will continue on to fly across the North American continent and then the Atlantic Ocean, because why not. You can follow the flights on the craft’s tracker page.

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