Solar Impulse touches down on unscheduled Japan stop

1st June 2015, Comments 0 comments

The record-breaking Solar Impulse 2 landed in Japan Monday on an unscheduled stop after mission controllers decided the weather was not right for the sun-powered plane to cross the vast Pacific Ocean.

The high-tech aircraft touched down at an airport in Nagoya, central Japan, at around 1450 GMT, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.

A live stream from mission control in Monaco showed flight controllers erupting in cheers and applause as the plane touched the tarmac in central Japan.

The plane and its solo pilot had set off from Nanjing in China more than 40 hours earlier, bound for Hawaii, a distance of some 8,500 kilometres (5,250 miles) that it was expected to cover in a six-day, six-night non-stop flight.

But mission controllers determined earlier Monday that weather over the Pacific that the plane would encounter as it neared Hawaii made the flight too risky and diverted it to Japan.

Pilot Andre Borschberg, 62, who had spent much of the day in a holding pattern over the Sea of Japan (East Sea), headed south towards Nagoya, where he was met by a skeleton support crew.

"On my way to Nagoya disappointed for not continuing but very thankful to the Japanese authorities for their support," he had tweeted earlier.

Bertrand Piccard, the initiator of the mission, said earlier in the day that what had been great conditions at take-off had deteriorated.

"When we took off from China it was quite clear we could cross the (weather) front," Piccard said on a live video posted on YouTube.

"It was almost easy, I would say, the weatherman was very confident.

"Now the window has closed. The front is too thick, too big. The plane would have to go through big layers of cloud.

"The only safe decision is to stop in Nagoya, wait a few days before carrying on."

Speaking to AFP in Monaco, he admitted the setback was disappointing, but said speed was never the most important thing.

"The round-the-world trip is not going as fast as we would like, but speed is not the objective. The goal is to arrive," he said.

Despite having been cut short by several days, the flight from China had already notched up at least one first -- Solar Impulse 2 became the first plane to fly day and night powered only by sunshine.

A small ground crew was waiting in Japan to deal with the unplanned landing, with the bulk of the technicians expected to arrive on Tuesday from Nanjing.

The aircraft will have to be tied down overnight to ensure it does not get buffeted by any wind.

The support team will be bringing an inflatable hangar to protect Solar Impulse as it awaits a weather window to make the journey across the Pacific to Hawaii.

- Promote green energy -

The flight from Nanjing to Hawaii was scheduled to be the longest section of the maiden solar-powered global circumnavigation of the globe, which is an attempt to promote green energy.

The journey began in Abu Dhabi in March and was originally intended to be for 12 legs, with a total flight time of around 25 days.

But the mission team had always had back-up plans in case the Nanjing-Hawaii flight did not go smoothly, with five airfields in Japan identified.

Speaking on Saturday hours before the departure from Nanjing, Borschberg told reporters the plane could land in Japan in case of technical problems, but the open ocean offers no such possibility.

"In case of emergency, we have Japan on the way, so we have identified airports where we could stop but this only really is in case of very difficult technical problems," Borschberg previously said.

"As soon as we leave this part of the world, then afterwards we are in the open sea. There is no way to come back."

Failure could mean a parachute descent into the ocean, hundreds of kilometres from rescue.

No ship is trailing the plane since it travels far too fast for a maritime vessel to keep up, even though its maximum speed of 140 kilometres an hour is much slower than conventional jet aircraft.

Solar Impulse 2 is powered by more than 17,000 solar cells built into wings that, at 72 metres (236 feet), are longer than those of a Boeing 747 and approaching those of an Airbus A380 superjumbo.

The plane is the successor to Solar Impulse, which managed a 26-hour flight in 2010, proving its ability to store enough power in lithium batteries during the day to keep flying at night.

Ridiculed by the aviation industry when it was first unveiled, the venture has since been hailed around the world, including by UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

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© 2015 AFP

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