Solar-Powered Plane

An aircraft takes off for a cross-country flight—with no fuel required

May 06, 2013 | By Cameron Keady with AP reporting

Powered only by solar panels on its wings, Solar Impulse will reach its final destination, New York City, in early July.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Solar Impulse! On May 3, 2013, aviation history was made when a solar-powered airplane, named Solar Impulse, began a journey across the United States. The plane’s creators, André Borshberg and Bertrand Piccard of Switzerland, are taking turns piloting the aircraft as it crosses the nation.

“All the big pioneers of the 20th century have tried to fly coast to coast across America,” said Piccard, who was in the pilot’s seat at takeoff. “So now we’re trying to do this, but on solar power with no fuel.”

Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard is co-piloting the aircraft during its journey.
Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard is co-piloting the aircraft during its journey.

Across America

Solar Impulse departed from Moffett Federal Airfield, in Northern California, just after dawn on May 3. Traveling at around 40 miles per hour, the plane will make its voyage in five separate trips. Each flight leg will take 19 to 25 hours with 10-day stops in each city. The first leg of the journey, from California to Phoenix, Arizona, was completed in 20 hours. From Phoenix, Solar Impulse will make stops in Dallas, TX, St. Louis, MO, and Washington, DC, before ending its last leg in New York City in early July. Solar Impulse’s journey marks the first time an airplane powered exclusively by solar energy will fly across the country during both the day and the night.

Plane Power

The solar-powered plane is a single-seat aircraft. “Our plane is not designed to carry a passenger, but to carry a message,” Piccard has said numerous times. That message is to use innovative, clean technologies for energy efficiency. Solar Impulse is intended to make its cross-country voyage without using a single drop of fuel. By day, 12,000 solar cells are charged by the sun to power lithium batteries. That enables the plane to fly at night—but it cannot travel through clouds. 

Solar Impulse weighs just 3,500 lbs, about as much as a car. Most of the weight is from the solar panels that cover its wings, which stretch 208 feet. The aircraft has reached an absolute altitude of 30,300 feet and has completed a trip that lasted more than 26 hours. This adventure is Solar Impulse’s final trip before its creators attempt an around-the-world flight in 2015. “We want to show that with clean technologies, a passionate team, and a far-reaching pioneering vision, one can achieve the impossible,” Piccard said in a statement.