DFW Airport the next stop on lightweight plane’s sun-powered cross-country flight

Posted Saturday, May. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard is living his dream — a flight across America — and he’s doing it without a drop of fuel.

Piloting the Solar Impulse, a gangly sun-powered airplane, Piccard flew 650 miles from San Francisco to Phoenix last weekend. The flight in a plane with the wingspan of a jumbo jet and the weight of a car took nearly 19 hours.

It was the first leg of a coast-to-coast journey that will make its next stop at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Weather permitting, Piccard is scheduled to take off early Tuesday on the 885-mile Phoenix-to-DFW flight.

After spending about a week in DFW spreading the gospel about clean energy, Piccard and fellow Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg will alternate flying the experimental single-seat plane to St. Louis and then Washington, D.C., before completing the journey in New York City.

“Our goal is to be able to stay in the air as long as we want. The longer the flight, the more difficult it is. It’s a test of the technology,” said Piccard, who initiated the Solar Impulse project a dozen years ago.

His chance to fly across America emerged after a setback in his pursuit of a more ambitious goal — flying around the world without fuel.

A next-generation solar plane with a larger cockpit is being built in Switzerland for the circumnavigation attempt. A part on the new plane broke during a load test on the ground last year, forcing the flight to be pushed back to 2015, Piccard said.

“But that gave us the opportunity to fulfill my dream of flying across America,” he said.

The Solar Impulse, which made its first test flights in 2010, was disassembled, put on a jumbo jet and flown from Europe. It was put back together in a hangar at Moffett Field near Mountain View, Calif.

A family of explorers

The two Swiss adventurers have extensive backgrounds in aviation.

Piccard, 54, is a psychiatrist who in 1999 made the first nonstop around-the-world balloon flight.

He’s from a family of scientists and bold explorers.

His grandfather Auguste Piccard, a physicist, was a pioneering high-altitude balloonist who then turned his attention to deep-sea exploration. He designed a bathyscaphe, and in 1948, he and his son, Jacques, used it to reach depths in excess of 10,000 feet.

Jacques Piccard, an oceanic engineer, economist and physicist, then went even deeper.

On Jan. 23, 1960, he and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh set a submarine depth record by descending 35,814 feet into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Jacques Piccard also worked for NASA and built the first tourist submarine.

Borschberg, 61, is an engineer and technology entrepreneur who spent more than 20 years flying for the Swiss air force.

He piloted the Solar Impulse on a 26-hour flight over Switzerland in July 2010, when it became the first solar-powered aircraft to fly through the night.

He and Bertrand Piccard teamed up on the revolutionary design of the Solar Impulse and are shepherding the $150 million project.

In 2012, the team included 30 engineers, 25 technicians and 22 mission controllers, according to the Solar Impulse website. Partners in the project include Solvay, Schindler, Bayer MaterialScience, SunPower, Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and the Swiss Confederation.

The sun-powered enterprise is envisioned as a counter to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, Borschberg said.

“We realized that the scarcity of fuel and oil made this project very important. We want people to be able to see the plane and the technology. The project is not only about flying; it is about education and to inspire people to try new things and show them that with the technology we have today, we can look at the world and deal with our challenges in a different way,” he said.

The solar plane is powered by 11,628 photovoltaic cells that cover its 208-foot wingspan and horizontal stabilizer.

The lightweight solar cells drive four 10-horsepower electric motors that can spin the propellers day or night. Special lightweight lithium polymer batteries store power for when the sun isn’t shining.

The 71.7-foot-long plane weighs only 3,527 pounds. Batteries make up of about a quarter of its weight.

A silent plane

Flying the delicate plane, which has a cruising speed of only 43 mph and a takeoff speed of 27 mph, poses unique challenges, the pilots said.

The large wingspan and light weight make the Solar Impulse sensitive to wind and thermals, Piccard said.

“This is why we can only fly when it’s calm,” he said. “We take off early in the morning and land late at night when there is less turbulence.”

Piccard, also an expert in hypnotherapy, said flying the silent solar plane is “a bit like meditation.”

“It took me more than 18 hours to go from San Francisco to Phoenix,” he said. “I was just there enjoying and feeling privileged to fly with no fuel.”

After a morning takeoff, the plane climbs the entire day to reach its maximum cruising altitude of about 28,000 feet, Piccard said.

“About one hour before sunset, we start to glide down over about five hours, so we are at about 5,000 feet around 11 p.m. Then we can use the batteries to reach the following morning. We have about eight hours fully on batteries,” he said.

“It’s a very, very strange airplane to fly because there is lots of delay in the flight controls. When you move the stick, you have to wait several seconds for something to happen,” Piccard said, noting that he spent 50 hours in a flight simulator before getting into the cockpit.

Piloting the experimental aircraft is akin to going back to the future, Borschberg said.

“In some ways, we are going back to 1915, when pioneers hadn’t flown across the ocean yet, when airplanes could not fly with instruments and could not fly in bad weather. They had to cope, and that is what we do as well,” he said. “If you think about the flying, it’s very beautiful, it’s silent, it’s an enjoyment.”

Everything about the plane, from its carbon fiber construction to its flight instruments, was designed to save energy, Piccard said.

“It’s a beautiful opportunity to speak about clean technology and innovation. Schools and universities can come and visit. And, of course, the political world, we just had a ceremony with the governor of Arizona,” Piccard said. “A lot of people are very passionate about this.”

Longtime pilot Samuel Vitellaro of Arlington has been closely following the Solar Impulse odyssey.

Vitellaro, 89, who started taking flying lessons at 12 and earned his pilot’s license at 15 while growing up in New Orleans, is fascinated by the idea of flying without fuel.

“Anything that advances aviation inspires my thoughts. Everybody ought to be super interested in not having to depend on petroleum for fuel. It would be a big step for the industry,” said Vitellaro, who spent a career working as a mechanical engineer at Bell Helicopter.

‘Opening new worlds’

The Solar Impulse ground team of about 35 will spend five to seven days at each destination preparing for the next leg and spreading its “green” message about innovation, the pioneering spirit and clean energy, Piccard said.

When the plane arrives at DFW Airport, people who want to see it will have to check the Solar Impulse website ( solarimpulse.com) to determine which days are open to the public.

“They can then sign up and visit for free. We have to limit numbers because we have to organize security because we are at an airport,” Piccard said. In Phoenix, visitors were limited to 150 a day.

While at DFW Airport, the Solar Impulse will be protected from inclement weather under a temporary structure at the Corporate Aviation facility, said David Magaña, senior manager of public affairs.

“It’s certainly a unique opportunity, and we’re doing all the things we need to do to handle it. We devised a special flight plan to accommodate it,” he said. “We have a piece of runway that will be closed when it comes in.”

Piccard said logistics for the solar-propelled odyssey have been a challenge.

“It has never been done before; there is no benchmark,” he said. “We have to deal with the weather. We have to organize air traffic control and organize the relations with airports. It’s the first arrival for this type of airplane at these airports.

“We are opening new worlds.”

Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981 Twitter: @stevecamp

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