Solar-powered plane begins round-the-world attempt

9th March 2015, Comments 0 comments

The first attempt to fly around the world in a plane using only solar power launched from Abu Dhabi on Monday on a landmark journey that will test its pilots' endurance to the limit.

"The adventure has started," Solar Impulse chairman Bertrand Piccard said emotionally, after pilot Andre Borschberg took off from Abu Dhabi's Al-Bateen airport at 7:12 am (0412 GMT) on the historic circumnavigation aimed at promoting green energy.

The 400 kilometre (215 nautical mile) maiden leg to the Omani capital Muscat was expected to take around 12 hours.

After four hours' flying, Borschberg was on schedule, having already entered Omani air space and covered just over a third of the distance.

The takeoff by Solar Impulse 2, which was originally scheduled for Saturday but delayed due to high winds, capped 13 years of research and testing by Swiss pilots Borschberg and Piccard.

Live video streaming on the website monitoring his progress www.solarimpulse.com showed the pilot, wearing an orange jumpsuit, breathing into an oxygen mask.

"From Mission Control Center in #Monaco the engineers are helping me to perform Oxygen Mask tests from #SolarImpulse," he tweeted.

Borschberg had earlier attempted to give media interviews before calling his wife, according to the live feed.

Shortly before takeoff, the 63-year-old pilot tweeted that the "challenge to come is real for me & the airplane".

The wingspan of the one-seater plane, known as the Si2, is slightly bigger than that of a jumbo jet, but its weight is around that of a family car.

From Muscat, it will make 12 stops on an epic journey spread over five months, with a total flight time of around 25 days.

It will cross the Arabian Sea to India before heading on to Myanmar, China, Hawaii and New York.

Landings are also earmarked for the midwestern United States and either southern Europe or North Africa, depending on weather conditions.

The longest single leg will see a lone pilot fly non-stop for five days and nights across the Pacific Ocean between Nanjing, China and Hawaii, a distance of 8,500 kilometres (5,270 miles).

- Cockpit like home -

Borschberg and Piccard will alternate stints flying the plane, which can hold only one person, with the aircraft able to fly on autopilot during rest breaks.

"You have to make the cockpit like your own house... you go to the toilet, you wash yourself with wet wipes, you eat, you drink, you recline the seat to have some rest, you turn on the autopilot," Piccard told reporters.

The pilots have undergone intensive training in preparation for the trip, including in yoga and self-hypnosis, allowing them to sleep for periods as short as 20 minutes but wake up feeling refreshed.

All this will happen without burning a drop of fuel.

The pilots will be linked to a control centre in Monaco where 65 weathermen, air traffic controllers and engineers will be stationed. A team of 65 ground staff will travel with the two pilots.

Should a problem occur while sleeping, the support staff can wake up the pilot.

"We want to share our vision of a clean future," Piccard said of the mission, which was ridiculed by the aviation industry when it was first unveiled.

But the 57-year-old, who hails from a family of scientist-adventurers and in 1999 became the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a hot air balloon, clung to his belief that clean technology and renewable energy "can achieve the impossible".

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

Thanks to an innovative design, the lightweight carbon fibre aircraft weighs only 2.3 tonnes, about the same as a family 4X4 and less than one percent of the weight of the A380.

The Si2 is the first solar-powered aircraft able to stay aloft for several days and nights.

The propeller craft has four 17.5 horsepower electric motors with rechargeable lithium batteries.

It will travel at 50-100 kilometres per hour, with the slower speeds at night to prevent the batteries from draining too quickly.

"This airplane is conceived to stay airborne days and nights in a row, maybe a week, so we hope that we make these very long flights because this is the demonstration of the vision of flying solar power with no fuel forever," said Piccard.

It is scheduled to arrive back in Abu Dhabi in July.


© 2015 AFP

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