Fly­ing by the Sun

So­lar-pow­ered avi­a­tion is light years ahead of where it was just 10 years ago, but still has a long way to go be­fore it threat­ens tra­di­tional com­bus­tion en­gines

Alberta Oil - - OBSERVER -

AS A CHILD, BER­TRAND PIC­CARD MET CHARLES

Lindbergh and saw the air­ships, bal­loons and steam ships that had crossed the At­lantic, fir­ing his imag­i­na­tion. Half a cen­tury later, in July 2016, his dream came true when he climbed out of So­lar Im­pulse 2 in Spain, hav­ing left the U.S. three days ear­lier on an epic avi­a­tion jour­ney that was pow­ered only by the sun. It also com­pleted a 16-stage cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe that he and his Swiss com­pa­triot An­dre Borschberg started last year.

The trip wasn’t with­out hic­cups. It was in­ter­rupted when the air­craft’s night-fly­ing recharge­able bat­ter­ies suf­fered ther­mal dam­age. But the So­lar Im­pulse 2 is an im­pres­sive feat in en­gi­neer­ing. The plane’s su­per-strength car­bon-fiber wings have a span as wide as a jumbo jet, yet it weighs the same as a car and trav­els at au­to­mo­bile speed. Its ul­tra-light­weight frame means it strug­gled against the At­lantic’s fast-chang­ing winds to stay at the al­ti­tudes needed to har­vest the sun’s power. Hav­ing traded space for weight, the two men shared a cof­fin-sized cock­pit, tak­ing turns fly­ing the sin­gle-seater.

Their 2009 pro­to­type, So­lar Im­pulse 1, was de­signed to re­main air­borne for only 36 hours, show­ing how far so­lar avi­a­tion has trav­elled in re­cent years. Yet it has a long, long way to go be­fore it catches the jet fuel-pro­pelled en­gines that trans­port mil­lions of pas­sen­gers ev­ery day. To put their achieve­ment into his­tor­i­cal con­text, the Wright broth­ers flew into his­tory in 1903. Eleven years later pi­lots fired ma­chine guns at each other over France and in 1927, Lindbergh crossed the At­lantic.

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