BEIJING: It took longer than expected to find the right weather, but a Swiss pilot is now airborne attempting something never attempted before — flying a plane across the Pacific with no fuel, only solar power.
Andre Borschberg took off in the Solar Impulse Plane from Nanjing, China, at about 2:40 a.m. Sunday. If all goes well, he will land the slow-moving, solar-powered plane in Hawaii after five or six days, after traveling 5,000 miles across the Pacific.
After that, Solar Impulse co-founder Bertrand Piccard is slated to fly the plane to Phoenix, once he finds a “weather window” that long eluded the team in China.
“Good flight to Hawaii, @andreborschberg my solar brother!” Piccard tweeted soon after Borschberg departed. “Enjoy every moment of it!”
Swiss pilots Borschberg and Piccard are taking turns attempting to fly the one-seat plane around the world. The product of a decade of work and fundraising, the Solar Impulse plane gets its energy from 17,000 solar cells on its 236-foot wide wings.
In a previous interview, Borschberg described the challenges of the flying the plane, which has wings wider than those on a Boeing 747 but is lighter than a minivan.
“It is difficult to fly, especially at the beginning,” said Borschberg, 62, a former fighter pilot with the Swiss air reserve. With its lightness and wide wingspan, the plane reacts slowly to a change in controls, making it easy for a pilot to overcompensate, he said.
During his Pacific crossing, Borschberg will have to avoid crosswinds and any unexpected thunderstorms. He will also need to use techniques to maximize energy efficiency. To do that, the Solar Impulse pilots fly the plane high during the day and then slowly descend during part of the night, with the engines turned off.
The danger, however, is that if there are clouds in the morning, it can be difficult to recharge the plane’s batteries.
The pilots says they are prepared if, for whatever reason, they are forced to ditch the plane in the ocean. Each pilot carries a parachute and life raft and has been trained in ocean survival. The flight’s progress can be tracked at www.solarimpulse.com.