Story of a flight with a message twist in the tail

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Story of a flight with a message twist in the tail

Pilot duo of Solar Impulse 2 lets us in to the makeup, techniques and objective of their adventure

By Silvia Radan - Reporter, Abu Dhabi

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Published: Sat 24 Jan 2015, 1:08 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 10:32 PM

Abu Dhabi: There was hardly any need to say it, as their excitement was no longer contained by their body language, but Borschberg was the first to admit: “We are counting the number of days to D-day.”

Waiting for D-Day ... Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard.

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg are the two Swiss pilots who started the solar airplane project about a decade ago and are now co-founders of Solar Impulse 2, the first solar plane to fly around the world, entirely powered by the sun’s energy.

“There are still a huge number of things to do. We have to test fly the airplane at quiet times, when no one is around, as it has to be safe when we fly over big cities, including the busiest one in the world,” said Borschberg.

And that is what the two pilots and their team of 80 specialists are doing at Al Bateen Airport in Abu Dhabi: testing, testing, testing!

Solar Impulse 2 will take off from Abu Dhabi at the end of February and return to Abu Dhabi five months later, in July.

“When I flew around the world in a balloon 16 years ago, it was possible to fly over every Middle Eastern country. Now the only country we can sneak through in North Africa is Egypt. Everywhere else, there are conflicts,” mentioned Piccard.

The stops are necessary to change flying duty as the Solar Impulse 2 only has one seat, but what a seat! It functions both as reclining berth and toilet. A parachute and a life raft are packed on its back and when fully reclined, it allows the pilot to perform physical exercises, especially needed when flying long distances across the Pacific or the Atlantic.

To make the most of solar power, cruising altitude will be kept lower than commercial aircraft, maximum 9,000 metres (29,000 feet) during daytime, to be above clouds and re-charge the solar cells, and 1,500 metres (5,000 feet) during night time, to save energy.

Since the airplane is very light, 2,300 kilograms, takeoffs and landings are planned for nigh time, in order to avoid turbulence and strong winds.

“As you can see, the wingspan is as big as a Boeing 747, but all we could afford was the weight of a family car. It seemed impossible for our engineers, but this is what we have here today,” said Borschberg.

A plane this light meant that all comforts had to be dropped, including heating. To cope with minus 40 degree Celsius when flying at high altitudes, both the pilot and the cockpit, where all the electronic commands are, will be protected by high-density thermal insulation.

Solar Impulse 2 is not the first solar airplane around. In the past few years, there have been solar flights, but all over relatively short distances.

 Piccard and Borschberg will be the first to attempt a round-the-world solar flight. Their aircraft may only be able to carry one person for now, but if successful, they will pave the way for a cleaner, brighter future of aviation.

“Solar Impulse was not built to carry passengers, but to carry messages. We want to demonstrate the importance of the pioneering spirit, to encourage people to question what they’ve always taken for granted. The world needs to find new ways of improving the quality of human life. Clean technologies and renewable forms of energy are part of the solution,” said Piccard.

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