Solar Powered Plane Takes Off On Last Flight Of US Journey

The Solar-powered aircraft, a zero fuel airplane

A solar-powered aircraft lifted off from a suburban Washington airport before dawn Saturday, embarking on the final leg of a history-making cross-country flight aimed at showcasing the promise of clean energy.

The single-seat plane will have Piccard's business partner Andre Borschberg at the controls when it leaves the US capital, Washington, around 4:45 am (0845 GMT) Saturday, with arrival in New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport expected Sunday, July 7, around 2 am (0600 GMT).

Despite the relatively short distance, it would be a long flight. The slow-flying aircraft would be traveling between two of the world's busiest airports and was required to take off very early in the morning and land very late at night when air traffic is at a minimum.

The aircraft, powered by some 11,000 solar cells, soars to 30,000 feet while poking along at a top speed of 45 mph

The plane runs on four electric propellers powered by an array of solar cells mounted on the plane’s 63 meter wingspan.

"This is a leg where everybody is quite moved," Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots who took turns flying the Solar Impulse across the United States, said shortly after the aircraft was in the air.

The Solar Impulse takeoff was broadcast live on the organizer’s website,

The aircraft, powered by some 11,000 solar cells, soars to 30,000 feet while poking along at a top speed of 45 mph. The Solar Impulse left San Francisco in early May and has made stopovers in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dulles.

The batteries are heavy, weighing in at roughly 880 pounds (400 kilograms). That's more than 25 percent of the plane's total weight, which is roughly equivalent to that of a passenger car.

Solar Impulse's HB-SIA prototype, with Bertrand Piccard at the controls, lands at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in St. Louis, Missouri

"A normal person could not make an airplane like that," said Piccard in an interview last month at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

"What we needed was two people with completely different experiences, with completely different backgrounds. André is an engineer and an entrepreneur. And I'm a medical doctor and explorer. Together, we cover the range of all of the [technical] possibilities that we needed to explore."

The two men take turns sitting in an extremely cramped cockpit in a plane that took ten years and $115 million to produce. Solar Impulse, which can climb to 28,000 feet (8,500 meters), can reach a maximum speed of 50 miles an hour (80 kilometers an hour) on its own. Strong tailwinds can boost the plane's speed to 100 miles an hour (160 kilometers an hour).

Pilot Bertrand Piccard

"I never find it too long," said Piccard. "When you are in the most revolutionary airplane, and you know that so many people are following your flight, so many people support your message about clean energy, it is just awesome to be in that plane."

Piccard said the US trip was "more difficult than expected because of the weather -- there were lots of tornadoes, thunderstorms, so several of our flights were delayed or postponed but nevertheless it was a big success."

Crowds of people came to see the plane at each of its four stopoffs so far, and Piccard said he was impressed by the positive reactions.

"We can really observe that America is a country of innovation and pioneering," he told AFP. "People were not only saying congratulations, they were saying thank you for what you do. It was very touching."


Piccard said the next plane will be 10 percent bigger, with more power, reliability, an auto-pilot function and a toilet so that pilots can make the four to six day long trips that will be part of its journey across the world in 2015.

"Our goal is not just to fly across America and make a historic milestone," said Piccard. "It needs to be useful for society, to show people worldwide how much more efficient the world can be with clean technology."


  • tiny cockpit
  • vulnerability to turbulence
  • lack of a toilet

Solar Impulse on one leg of its cross-country flight.

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Write by: RC - Saturday, July 6, 2013

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