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Coast to Coast on Sun Power

By Martin A. Bartels 
Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: July 12, 2013 
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The Solar Impulse soars over the Golden Gate Bridge during tests in April 2013. [Image: Solar Impulse]
The Solar Impulse soars over the Golden Gate Bridge during tests in April 2013. [Image: Solar Impulse]

Imagine flying 900 miles at about 40 mph in a cockpit that has half the interior space of a Mini Cooper, with wings the span of a commercial jet providing lift. Now remove the gas tank, add 12,000 photovoltaic cells and a tail like a dragonfly's, and you have a rough idea of what it's like to fly Solar Impulse, the sun-powered airplane making its way across the United States this summer.

The inconveniences in achieving the seemingly impossible never really bothered Swiss co-creators and pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, who first generated attention with test flights in Europe and North Africa in 2011 and 2012. Their latest goal—to traverse the U.S. in a craft that requires no fossil fuels and can fly both by day and by night—is as much a social movement as it is a practical application of solar technologies. The U.S. effort began in San Francisco in early May with the intent of both showcasing green technology and promoting innovation. The journey has captured popular imagination, as the pilots carry a USB drive containing the names of more than 20,000 "virtual passengers" on each flight. Hundreds of spectators witness each takeoff and landing, and view the aircraft during layovers.

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The Solar Impulse team has achieved a number of firsts, not all of them in the air. While the team was preparing for the flight's third leg in late May, from Dallas/Fort Worth to Lambert Airport in St. Louis, severe storms damaged several hangars, including the one for which the plane was destined. The Solar Impulse ground team deployed a specially designed inflatable hangar in St. Louis, unique for its unusual dimensions (289 feet by 105 feet) and for the fact that it is translucent, allowing the plane's solar cells to recharge while docked.

Solar Impulse was expected to complete the journey's final legs, from St. Louis to Washington/Dulles, and then Dulles to New York's JFK airport, by early July. The team has plans to circumnavigate the globe in 2015. For more information, visit solar

Post-press update: On July 5, 2013, the Solar Impulse successfully landed at New York's JFK Airport after experiencing a rip in the fabric on the lower side of the left wing. The team was expected to return to Switzerland in mid July following a variety of media events.

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