Solar-Powered Flight!

One of the coolest things happening today—which I’ve seen NOTHING about in the mainstream press—is the solar-powered airplane that’s flying across the U.S., with one pilot on board.

solar powered flightCreated by a Swiss team led by Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the plane is an amazing piece of engineering. Its wing, coated with solar cells, is 208 feet long, longer than a Boeing 777’s. Yet the whole plane weighs just 3,527 pounds, which is in the neighborhood of a Ford Mustang or Chevy Volt.

And it runs totally on solar power, propelled by four 10-hp motors. In fact, the plane has the capability, right now, to fly around the world non-stop, given favorable weather conditions. Trouble is, there’s no pilot on earth who’s capable of sitting in the cramped cockpit and remaining functional for that long.

And that’s because the plane is really slow. Its most efficient speed is 25 mph, which means today, its flight from Dallas, Texas to St. Louis, Missouri, will take about 21 hours!

More fun facts. When the plane landed in Dallas at the end of its last leg, it faced headwinds of nearly 30 mph, which pretty much neutralized its forward speed. So it approached the runway sideways!

The plane is fragile. It really doesn’t like turbulence. So it typically takes off before dawn, when the air is calm. Today, it left Dallas at 4 AM and it’s expected in St. Louis after midnight. You can see live coverage here.

When it takes off, the plane uses power stored in its batteries from the previous day. As the sun rises, its solar cells gradually recharge the batteries, and over the course of a day, the plane climbs to a height of 27,000 feet, which is where commercial jet planes are flying. But they’re flying at 600 mph, so air traffic control is a challenge. At that height, the pilot uses oxygen to breathe, and boot and glove heaters to stay warm. As the sun goes down, the pilot could choose to stay at that level, but typically coasts slowly down (using no electricity) to lower levels, and eventually lands.

Today as I was monitoring the plane’s progress, I heard an interview between Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh, and pilot Bertrand Piccard. Lindbergh is an accomplished pilot himself, who eleven years ago retraced his grandfather’s famous flight in a small single-engine aircraft; his flight took 17 hours, roughly half the time of his grandfather’s 1927 flight. And they noted that while Charles Lindbergh’s flight was an unprecedented marvel, just twenty years later it commonplace. In 1947, there were 27 passenger flights a week across the North Atlantic on BOAC and other European airlines and 151 flights every two weeks on Pan Am, AOA, TWA and TCA.

Professor Cuthbert CalculusFinal fun fact. Bertrand Piccard completed the first circumnavigation of the globe by balloon in 1999. His grandfather, Auguste Piccard, twice beat the record for reaching the highest altitude in a balloon, during 1931–1932. Finally, Auguste Piccard was the inspiration for Professor Cuthbert Calculus in The Adventures of Tintin by Belgian cartoonist Hergé!


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