A solar-powered airplane landed in California on Saturday, completing the first stage of its daunting mission to travel across the world.
Pilot Bertrand Piccard landed the Solar Impulse 2 in Mountain View, in the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, at 11:45 p.m. following a 62-hour, nonstop solo flight without fuel. The plane landed on Moffett Airfield where Piccard was met by the project’s team. “You know there was a moment in the night, I was watching the reflection of the moon on the ocean and I was thinking ‘I’m completely alone in this tiny cockpit and I feel completely confident.’ And I was really thankful to life for bringing me this experience,” Piccard said at a news conference after he landed. “It’s maybe this is one of the most fantastic experiences of life I’ve had.”
The landing came after a fly-by over the Golden Gate Bridge as people goggled from below at the airplane’s state-of-the-art design. “I crossed the bridge. I am officially in America,” he proclaimed as he looked at San Francisco Bay in all its glory.
Piccard and fellow Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg have been switching off flying the plane on an around-the-world trip since taking off from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in March 2015. It made stops in Oman, Myanmar, China, Japan and Hawaii.
The pilots said that the trans-Pacific leg was the most difficult to navigate due to the lack of available landing locations.
The aircraft faced several obstacles along the way.
The Solar Impulse 2 landed in Hawaii in July and was forced to stay in the islands after the plane’s battery system had heat damage on its trip from Japan. The team was delayed in Asia, too. When first attempting to fly from Nanjing, China, to Hawaii, the crew had to land in Japan and forgo their travel for a few days because of poor weather conditions.
A month later, when weather conditions were adequate, the plane departed from Nagoya in central Japan for Hawaii.
The plane’s preferred flight speed is 28mph, however, during the day when the sun is brightest, the aircraft can double that amount. The plane is composed of carbon-fiber and weighs 5,000 lbs, about the equivalent of a mid-sized truck.
The plane’s wings, which span wider than those of a Boeing 747, are equipped with 17,000 solar cells that power propellers and charge batteries. The plane runs on stored energy at night.
Solar Impulse 2 will make three more stops in the United States before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Europe or Northern Africa, according to the website documenting the journey. “The adventure continues,” Piccard said. “The story is not finished.”
The project, which began in 2002 and is projected to cost more than $100 million, is meant to encourage innovative thought and awareness of the power of creativity. “I think innovation and pioneering must continue,” Piccard said. “It must continue for better quality of life, for clean technologies, for renewable energy; this is where the pioneers can really express themselves and be successful.” Solar-powered air travel is not currently commercially feasible, due to the slow travel time and physical constraints. “Maybe it will be boring in 20 years when all the airplanes will be electric and people will say ‘Oh it’s routine.’ But now, today, an airplane that is electric, with electric engines, that produces its own energy with the sun, it can never be boring,” Piccard said. “It’s a miracle of technology.”