A new kind of airplane is about to fly the skies over the country that the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh all once called home.
That country is the United States, and that airplane is the Solar Impulse, a massive solar-powered propeller plane built in Switzerland by a pair of mad aeronautic Adrenalists: Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard.
Maybe you’ve heard of the Piccards before: his grandfather, Auguste Piccard, was perhaps the first man to see the curvature of the earth when he rode a balloon to 52,000 feet in 1932. Bertrand’s father Jacques ventured in the opposite direction, becoming the first man along with Lt. Don Walsh to reach Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.
Bertrand Piccard, 54, has already lived up to the family name. In 1999, he along with Brian Jones became the first men to circumnavigate the globe in a ballon. When he touched down to earth in Egypt after nearly 20 days in the air, Piccard was oddly disappointed, he tells 60 Minutes. He missed the sky. Also, he promised himself the next time he flew around the world, he would do so without an ounce of fuel.
Piccard and businessman-engineer Borschberg are closer to that dream than ever before. Their plane was the product of $120 million in investment and thousands of hours of testing and it has already proved its sky-worthiness In 2009, the Solar Impulse flew its first 24-hour day-to-night cycle, an important milestone for a plane powered only by the sun (the plane’s wings are made, quite literally, of solar cells). In spring 2012, the Solar Impulse flew 3,600 miles from Switzerland to Morocco and back again, proving the hyper-light carbon fiber machine, which boasts a wingspan longer than a Boeing 787, can handle the wear and tear of the skies. The trip was made in 8 legs.
If all goes according to plan, the continental US flight will be non-stop. That will be a tough task in a plane that cruises at just 43 mph, and is susceptible to damage from even minor turbulence, not to mention serious weather systems. And that’s just a start of the challenges faced by the crew. The Solar Impulse cabin isn’t exactly comfortable. At 30,000 feet, the cabin can reach -60 degrees. When the sun is shining down on the cockpit at lower altitudes, the cabin can reach 100 degrees. Also, there is no bathroom on board the one-person plane. The toilet is built into the seat.
Of course, if it was comfortable, it wouldn’t be an adventure. Piccard and Borschberg hope to take off next spring, and then plan a trip across the Atlantic. An around-the-world trip in Solar Impulse could happen as early as 2015.
Follow the project at the Solar Impulse official site.