With its gaunt skeletal frame and awkward, lanky proportions, the Solar Impulse 2 (SI2) is a far cry from the supersonic image one normally gets when discussing revolutionary, record-setting aircraft. Where is the pointy nose? What about the fire-belching rocket engines?
Despite its dragonfly-like appearance, SI2 is indeed a radical and ground-breaking machine. Swiss Pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre' Borschberg recently completed a 23,000 mile journey around the globe in SI2 using only solar power. The words don't quite capture the enormity of this accomplishment. So let me say it again: This airplane flew completely around the world without using one single ounce of fossil fuel!
If the feat accomplished by SI2 and her pilots does not leave you slack-jawed and perhaps drooling ever so slightly on your keyboard, you still don't get it. This is an enormous milestone for both aviation and solar power technology.
Most aeronautical achievements are as dependent on technological breakthroughs as they are piloting feats of derring-do. SI2's around-the-world success was no different. It required not only a cutting edge machine, but also pilots who were willing to risk everything to see what it could do.
Stop and Go
SI2's circumnavigation was not accomplished in a single flight. The team's original plan divided the route into 12 eastbound legs spanning a period of about 4 months. These things take time when your average flying speed is only 41 miles per hour. As it turned out, SI2 landed in 17 cities and required more than 16 months to complete the trip.
The airplane is built to carry just one person, so Piccard and Borschberg traded off flying duties…each flying solo for specific legs of the flight. Throughout the journey, a support team travelled to each of the waypoints to receive and send off SI2. There was also a mission control center located in Monaco where, among other things, specialists kept an eye on the weather, and monitored SI2's myriad systems via satellite.
The shortest leg of the flight was an outlier lasting less than 5 hours between Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania and New York City. The next shortest flight was just over 13 hours, with several other legs lasting less than 20 hours.