Mon, Jun 01, 2015 - Page 4 News List

‘Solar Impulse’ begins six-day Pacific flight to Hawaii


Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg, center, speaks to the media before the Solar Impulse 2 takes off in Nanjing, China, yesterday.

Photo: AFP

The revolutionary Solar Impulse 2 aircraft took off early yesterday for a six-day, six-night flight over the Pacific Ocean, the most ambitious leg of its quest to circumnavigate the globe powered only by the sun.

Pilot Andre Borschberg, 62, left the ground in Nanjing, China, heading for the US island of Hawaii, at about 2:40am, after extended delays awaiting a suitable weather window over safety concerns.

Lit by white lights on its wings, the plane rolled down the runway before climbing into a misty sky with its four whirling propellers nearly silent.

Ground crew members cheered as it took off.

The 8,500km flight could set a record for duration by a single pilot, organizers said.

“I cross my fingers and I hope to cross the Pacific,” Borschberg told reporters just hours before the take-off. “We have a good weather window, which means we have a stable corridor to reach Hawaii,” he said, shortly before climbing into the cockpit to test the instruments.

The current flight plan saw no threat from typhoons.

“I’m really confident we should be able to get through and find the right way,” he said.

It is the seventh and longest section of the maiden solar-powered global circumnavigation, an attempt to promote green energy.

The journey began in Abu Dhabi in March and is scheduled for 12 legs, with a total flight time of about 25 days.

Nonetheless, Solar Impulse 2 spent two months in China after arriving at Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport from Myanmar on March 31, where it had been due to make only a brief stop before continuing to Nanjing, but was held up for weeks by weather issues.

After more than eight hours in the air, the plane was over the East China Sea and Borschberg could be heard discussing light turbulence along the upcoming journey with the Solar Impulse team.

“For the Pacific, I need to be ready for the unknown,” Borschberg tweeted before takeoff. “I’m not sure how Si2 will behave over so many days and nights,” he added, referring to an abbreviation for the plane, Solar Impulse 2.

On the Pacific voyage, Borschberg will experience altitudes of 28,000 feet, akin to the world’s highest peak, and temperature changes of 55oC in the unpressurized, unheated Solar Impulse 2 cockpit.

At the same time, he will only be able to catch the shortest of naps — his seat doubles as a bed — given the need to check the autopilot.

However, failure could mean a parachute descent into the ocean hundreds of kilometers from rescue.

No ship is to trail the plane as it travels far too fast for a maritime vessel to keep up with, even though its maximum speed of 140kph is much slower than conventional jet aircraft.

Even so, with an engineer’s detachment, Borschberg has declined to contemplate his own mortality.

“I don’t see it [as] risky, in the sense that we worked a long time on all these different questions,” he said. “In the worst case, we have a parachute, we have a life raft and we know how to use it. Of course, hoping that we will not need to do that.”

Planners had identified airports in Japan should the plane need to make a stop because of technical problems, but the open ocean offers no such possibility, he said.

“As soon as we leave this part of the world, then afterward we are in the open sea. There is no way to come back,” Borschberg said.

Solar Impulse 2 is powered by more than 17,000 solar cells built into wings that, at 72 meters, are longer than those of a Boeing 747 and approaching those of an Airbus A380 superjumbo.

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