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Solar-powered plane Solar Impulse reaches milestone for renewable energy

July 08, 2013|By Devin Kelly
  • Pilot Andr Borschberg, right, and Solar Impulse project president Bertrand Piccard waving after arriving in the solar-powered airplane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on Saturday after the final leg of its flight across the United States.
Pilot Andr Borschberg, right, and Solar Impulse project president Bertrand… (Niels Ackermann / Solar…)

The pilots of the first solar-powered plane to fly across America hope to transform the momentum of their historic flight into a grand-scale push for clean technology.      

Solar Impulse pilot and project president Bertrand Piccard said his team was “elated” by the smooth landing at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on Saturday night from an aviation and a renewable-energy standpoint.

“It really shows our clean-technology solar energy and our new systems have been reliable,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

The solar technology used by the plane can also be applied to cars, homes and buildings, he said. Nearly 12,000 solar cells line the surface of Solar Impulse, powering the plane’s four electric motors and charging the lithium-ion batteries for night flight.

The aircraft can soar to 30,000 feet while poking along at a top speed of 45 mph. Most of the solar cells are on the super-long wings that seem to stretch as far as a jumbo jet's. The craft weighs about the size of a small car.

Solar Impulse's creators view themselves as green pioneers — promoting lighter materials, solar-powered batteries and conservation as an adventurous undertaking.

As an aviator, Piccard said the cross-country flight that began two months ago fulfilled a decade-long dream. Flying coast-to-coast is a “mythical” aviation milestone, said the Swiss pilot, who was inspired by American pilots like Charles Lindbergh.  

He said he sees cycles in the aviation field, like the drive to land humans on the moon.

“Today we start a new cycle,” he said.

Solar Impulse made its first international flight in 2011, from Switzerland to Belgium to France. Last year it completed the world’s first solar-powered intercontinental flight, flying from Europe to North Africa in eight legs over two months.

Its U.S. journey began May 3 near San Francisco, with an 18-hour opening leg to Phoenix. The two pilots switched turns at the controls the rest of the way.

In the course of 105 hours in the air, bad weather occasionally intervened. The plane had to make an unexpected stop in Cincinnati before flying on to Washington, D.C.

On the way from Washington to New York, a slight tear in the fabric of the plane sparked concern and shortened the final leg of the flight by about three hours. But the plane still landed smoothly at JFK Airport at 11:09 p.m. ET on Saturday.

For such a mission, setbacks are expected, Piccard said.  

“Otherwise, it’s not a good adventure,” he said.

He and co-pilot André Borschberg spent Sunday touring the city and conducting media interviews. As in other cities, members of the public will be able to view Solar Impulse this week at the airport where it landed.  

On Tuesday morning, the two will participate in a NASDAQ opening ceremony, symbolic for the emerging-technology focus of the stock exchange, Piccard said. Later that day, the pilots will meet U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon.  

Piccard said the next milestone for Solar Impulse will be to fly around the world in 2015. 

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devin.kelly@latimes.com


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