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Sunday, May 31, 2015

THE EPIC FLIGHT OF SOLAR IMPULSE 2 TO HAWAII

(ALERT:  Solar Impulse 2 had to make an emergency landing in Nagoya, Japan, as the weather west of Hawaii looked too dangerous.  Thus, the Thursday-Friday arrival in Honolulu will be delayed by a few days.  Keep tuned to  SOLARIMPULSE for the latest development.)

Earlier this month I reported on the Solar Impulse 2 (SI2), which was in Nanjing getting ready for leg #7, a monumental challenge:  five to six days over the Pacific to Hawaii, a flight of 5074 miles.  This is a solar powered airplane with limited battery storage, and the longest trip so far was only 20.5 hours long.  Keep in mind that the distance between Honolulu and New York City is shorter:  4957 miles.

With the wingspan of a Boeing 747, the plane is as heavy as a car, and only maintains speeds between 30-60 MPH, climbing to higher than Mount Everest (29,029 feet) during sunlight, and dropping to 3,000 feet when the Sun rises and hopefully is not covered by clouds.  No temperature controls in the cockpit, with the range to be tolerated from minus 4 F to 95 F.   Twenty-minute catnaps are mandatory, eight times/day, with the plane on autopilot.  The emotional strain is to the max and you can't be claustrophobic nor acrophobic.

Why are they even doing this?  The challenge, of course, but current pilot Andre Borschberg (right) and Bertrand Piccard (they alternate flying the aircraft) will become famous.  Piccard is already well-known, for he has flown a balloon around the world and his father, Jacques, was the first to reach the deepest part of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.  The team wants to showcase a sustainable means of flying, for 17,248 solar photovoltaic cells capture the energy from sunlight.  Four lithium polymer batteries (as relatively light as these are, storage takes up more than 40% the weight) provide power at night.  This is not a glider nor hot air balloon.  Propellers need to turn.


Companies will have invested $150 million--you too can contribute--when the plane returns to Abu Dhabi after a journey of 22,000 miles, not quite the 24,901 circumference of Planet Earth.  My round the world trip this Fall could approach 29,000 miles, under more tolerable conditions, taking 65 days.  Awaiting ideal conditions, SI2 could well take twice that long...if it makes it at all.

Well, yesterday, 8:39 AM Hawaii time (UTC 1839--once known as Greenwich Mean Time, now Coordinated Universal Time, and the C is after the UT because that is the French sequence) on Saturday, SI2 left Nanjing.  By my calculation, we should expect the arrival at Kalaeloa Airport (Barbers Point--18 miles west of Honolulu International Airport) just at sunset on Thursday.  However, some estimates say six days, which then would be mid morning on Friday.  Chances are the landing will occur at night.

But that's the good news for Borschberg.  This will be an epic test for man and machine, something never before even attempted.  You think he might have an escort or two, as marathon swimmers have, but, no, he is all alone.  If the plane showed signs of crashing, he does have a parachute and a raft, but he will have to wait for rescue.

Click on SOLARIMPULSE to track the flight.  One day into the adventure, there has been turbulence and sleeping has been difficult.  As I post this article, SI2 should be over Japan near Osaka.  The next online report will occur at 2145 UTC.

London

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