Cool Stuff: Solar Impulses's Last Leg

Solar-powered plane flies across country; tear in wing fabric adds drama to flight

July 25, 2013

solar impulseAfter a two-month journey powered only by solar power,  Solar Impulse HB-SIA’s last leg across the United States should have literally been a breeze.

Instead, the flight from Washington to New York on July 6 was filled with drama and tense moments after the plane was discovered to have an 8-foot long tear in the fabric of its left wing.

"Maybe if I didn't have 10 cameras pointed at me, I would cry," Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, one of the pilots for the coast-to-coast journey, said just before the 11:09 p.m. ET landing at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

NBC News reported that Andre Borschberg, who was flying the Washington-to-New York section, noticed a balance issue with the wings that afternoon. Pictures taken by a helicopter flying nearby confirmed the damage.

Neither Borschberg nor the plane were thought to be in danger; nevertheless, the Solar Impulse team did everything it could to reduce the risk, NBC reported, including considering options for ending the flight, passing up a Statue of Liberty photo op and changing the landing time and procedure.

"It was supposed to be the shortest and easiest leg," Piccard said later. "It was the most difficult one."

Still, the plane that weighs as much as an automobile but has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 did set a new milestone in the history of aviation: for the first time a plane capable of flying day and night powered exclusively by solar energy crossed the United States from the West to the East coasts without using a drop of fuel. All of its power came from 12,000 solar cells installed on its wings and horizontal stabilizer, with excess electricity stored in 800 pounds' worth of batteries.

solar impulseThe "Across America" trip began on May 3 with a flight from Moffett Field, near San Francisco, to Phoenix, and continued with stops in Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Washington.

"We have an airplane which has almost unlimited endurance," Borschberg told NBC News. "This airplane could have flown directly from California to New York, so it’s fully sustainable in terms of energy. The limiting factor is the pilot."

The two next plan to fly a new prototype, HB-SIB, around the world in 2015.