What flies using power from the Sun, at the speed of an ultralight, on wings longer than a Boeing 777 airliner? Answer: Solar Impulse! A team of Swiss entrepreneurs, engineers, pilots, and enthusiasts began to design the Solar Impulse in 2003 with the goal to demonstrate flying day-and-night powered only by the electricity that more than 11,000 individual solar cells generate. The electricity is stored in batteries when not used, and spin the propellers on four 10-horsepower electric motors when in flight. On July 7, 2010, pilot Markus Scherdel flew Solar Impulse 26 hours 10 minutes 19 seconds nonstop. Several more record-setting flights followed and now, psychiatrist, explorer, and pilot Bertrand Piccard, and the co-founder of the project, André Borschberg, are flying Solar Impulse across the United States. In 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones made the first non-stop around-the-world balloon flight aboard the Breitling Orbiter 3 now on display in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
If weather conditions are favorable across the central United States, Solar Impulse will land early next week at Dulles Airport. The team will then move the airplane to a spot outside the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center for public display during this year’s Become a Pilot Family Day and Aviation Display on Saturday, June 15, and the following day, Sunday June 16 (please, check the Museum’s website and social media platforms for updates and weather delays).
The Solar Impulse team has already started building a second Solar Impulse that will incorporate the lessons learned from the first. An attempt in the second Solar Impulse to circumnavigate Planet Earth nonstop is planned for 2015.
I will discuss how the Solar Impulse compares to some of the ultralight, and ultra-heavy aircraft on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center during the Become a Pilot Day social. Join the conversation on Twitter by following #PilotDay2013.
Find out more about Solar Impulse’s flight across the United States.
Find out more about the Solar Impulse project.
Russ Lee is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.