The pilots for the world’s first solar-powered around-the-world flight were announced this week in preparation for the plane’s launch next month. Pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg will each control the unique plane for part of its flight beginning and ending in Abu Dhabi.
The plane in question is the Solar Impulse 2, a 5,000 pound, single-seat plane with a wingspan that surpasses that of a Boeing 747. The flight will be powered entirely by the solar panels on the wings and fuselage of the plane, which feed energy to four batteries inside the plane. These batteries charge the plane’s motors enough to move it along at speeds of 20 to 90 miles per hour.
Both the Solar Impulse 1 and the Solar Impulse 2 have completed flights overnight and across the United States, but this is the first time a Solar Impulse of either generation will cross an ocean. This means the plane will have to stay aloft for five days at a time. To accomplish this, pilots will have to cruise at high altitudes to charge the batteries in the daytime and descend slowly overnight.
Fortunately for the pilots, their seat will double as a toilet and a recliner for sleep. Since each pilot will spend approximately three weeks in the air, it’s a feature they’ll both likely be grateful for. On the downside, the cabin is unheated and unpressurized, so it won’t be a comfortable trip.
A team of 60 people will monitor and support the plane’s progress, reporting weather conditions and planning route changes as needed.
The plane is scheduled to leave from Abu Dhabi sometime in late February or early March. It will head east and make several stops before crossing the Pacific and touching down in Hawaii. The plan will then make several stops across the U.S. before leaving from JFK Airport to cross the Atlantic. After stops in either Southern Europe or North Africa, the plane will return to Abu Dhabi.
Battery-powered aircraft are still relatively new, so the creators of the Solar Impulse 2 aren’t looking to prove that solar planes are commercially viable. They just want to prove it’s possible, like astronauts going to the moon.