What began as a dream years ago is now becoming reality for two very talented Swiss pilots. Dr. Bertrand Piccard, a 51-year-old psychiatrist and aeronaut, along with former fighter pilot and project CEO Andre Borschberg, are getting ready to fly around the world in a solar-powered aircraft. Imagine flying from here-to-there without the need for fuel.
In December, test pilot Markus Scherdel took their prototype solar aircraft, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA , on a successful first test flight near Zurich. After the flight was completed, the craft was dismantled and moved to another location for further testing.
The aircraft is the first plane designed to fly day and night without any fuel. The Solar Impulse, a 3,500 pound aircraft powered by four 10 horsepower electric engines, will fly around the world over 20 to 25 days, at an average speed of 43 miles per hour. Because the plane is a one-seater, the Piccard and Borschberg will take turns flying the aircraft. And despite the fact that aircraft manufacturers said it couldn’t be done, a racing yacht manufacturer built the frame.
With a wingspan nearly the same as an Airbus A340, solar panels cover the surface of the wings. More than 10,000 solar cells are mounted on the wings and nearly 900 on the horizontal stabilizer, supplying renewable energy to the motors. During the day, the solar panels will absorb energy to power the zero-fuel aircraft while storing energy in the lithium polymer batteries that will power the electric engines during the night.
The $100 million project will undergo a variety of tests before the around-the-world flight takes place. The project, years in the making, will also be used to raise awareness about the endless possibilities of renewable energies. The plane is expected to make its first solar test flights sometime this year. A second aircraft, the HB-SIB, will be constructed at a later date for the fuel-free flight around the world, which is expected to take off sometime in 2012 or 2013.
No stranger to adventure, Piccard’s father, Jacques, was a record-setting deep-sea diver and his grandfather was the first to fly a hot-air balloon into the stratosphere. And in 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones became the first men to compete in a non-stop hot-air balloon flight around the world.