Flying across the Pacific Ocean isn’t such a big a deal these days. It doesn’t seem like there are many records to break or milestones to hit anymore. But one innovative new plane slowly piloted the world into a new era Tuesday.
The Solar Impulse 2 broke the record for the longest solar-powered flight in distance and duration as it reached the halfway point on its journey across the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii.
A pair of Swiss pilots are alternating seats at the helm of the single-occupant plane. Andre Borschberg is navigating the first long leg. At a modest 20 to 90 miles per hour, the 4,908-mile flight from Japan to Honolulu is expected to take five days.
“The first night is always horrible,” said Bertrand Piccard, the other pilot. When the sun sets, he told Wired Magazine, the pilot can’t help but feel fearful. But once the first night passes and the sun rises the next morning, “you get into the spirit.”
The plane’s long wings are covered in solar panels that feed ultra-efficient batteries able to keep the plane aloft even when the sun isn’t.
Piccard and Borschberg have been developing the Solar Impulse for nearly 12 years. They have had several significant demonstration flights. But now they’re proving that a manned-aircraft can fly nonstop – day and night – on nothing but power from the sun. This around-the-world journey is a treacherous and slow, but significant one.
In an era when circumnavigating the globe seems as ordinary as a “been there, done that” T-Shirt, this particular full circle will mean solar energy has arrived.
While we’re not all likely to jump into single-occupant planes flying 20- to 90-miles per hour anytime soon, this flight is proof that solar energy paired with battery storage doesn’t just have potential. Instead of burning tons of toxic jet fuel, there could be a future where major airliners soar on the power of the sun.
We’ve all seen technology evolve rapidly over the years. And it’s clear that while the Solar Impulse is pokey and weird, it’s also significant and it’s shining a bright light on where solar power can take us.
Of course, the plane has some challenges. It was grounded in Japan for several days because of a cold front. While our modern-day jets don’t have those sorts of issues and they can carry hundreds of passengers at a time, sweeping them across the Pacific in as many hours as the Impulse will take days, No one watches with excitement when jets cross the finish line of a global circumnavigation.
The rest of the 12-leg journey is expected to take five months.