Journey’s End

The solar-powered airplane Solar Impulse completes its historic cross-country flight

Jul 10, 2013 | By Cameron Keady
FRED MERZ/SOLAR IMPULSE

Co-pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg at John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 6, following the completion of their flight.

Swiss pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg may have landed their unique airplane, but they’re still flying high. On Friday, July 6, the two aviators made history when they completed a cross-country journey in an aircraft powered only by solar energy. The plane, called Solar Impulse, flew across the United States without using a single drop of fuel. The trip was a major feat for aviation and the development of renewable energy.

“What was a year ago an idea became in the last eight weeks a reality,” said Borschberg in a press conference after the flight was completed. “Now it’s already history.”

Solar Impulse's wingspan extends 208 feet. The wings are covered with more than 11,000 solar cells.
FRED MERZ/SOLAR IMPULSE
Solar Impulse's wingspan extends 208 feet. The wings are covered with more than 11,000 solar cells.

Sky-High Success

With the wingspan of a jumbo jet and weight of a small car, Solar Impulse achieved its first milestone in 2010, when it completed the first ever solar-powered night flight above Switzerland. In 2011, it continued its success with the first international journey by a solar-powered aircraft, flying from Switzerland to Belgium to France. An intercontinental flight from Europe to Africa last year set a world record in distance for solar aviation, measuring 693 miles. 

After these accomplishments, Borschberg and Piccard wanted to continue their adventure in the air. “If we could fly in Europe, why couldn’t we make the history continue and fly in the country where aviation was born?” said Piccard.

Far From Home

The ambitious journey across the U.S. began on May 3, 2013, in San Francisco, CA. Piccard and Borschberg took turns flying Solar Impulse, making stops in Phoenix, AZ, Dallas-Fort Woth, TX, St. Louis, MO, Cincinnati, OH, and Washington D.C., before landing at 11:09 PM on July 6 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The 3,511-mile trip lasted a total of 105 hours and 41 minutes. Though the plane landed safely in New York, it wasn’t always a smooth ride.

Solar Impulse encountered tornadoes while flying over the central U.S. In St. Louis, the roof of a hangar, the large building used to house the aircraft during its resting period, blew off, forcing the team to use an inflatable hangar. Additionally, the pilots had hoped to fly past the Statue of Liberty to mark the end of their journey, but a small tear in the fabric of one of its wings forced Solar Impulse to land early.

Solar Impulse makes its final descent into New York City.
FRED MERZ/SOLAR IMPULSE
Solar Impulse makes its final descent into New York City.

“During this journey, we had to find solutions for a lot of unforeseen situations, which obliged us to develop new skills and strategies,” said Piccard. “In doing so, we also pushed the boundaries of clean technologies and renewable energies.”

Adventure and the Environment

The spirit behind Solar Impulse is not just about the future of aviation, but the future of the planet. One reason why the plane was built was to promote clean energy and technology. Using 11,628 solar cells across its wings, the plane collected sunlight during the day to fly itself through the night. This eliminated the need for fossil fuels that pollute the air and hurt the environment.

Borschberg and Piccard hope to continue to advance these innovations and clean technologies and complete a flight around the world in 2015. The pilots say they are optimistic that this dream is achievable.

“The pioneering spirit is when we accept the question marks and the doubts, and challenge the unknown,” said Piccard. “These questions and challenges are what stimulate human creativity.”