First Solar-Powered Plane Lands at DFW
As part of a cross-country tour, the solar-powered aircraft Solar Impulse, piloted by André Borschberg, landed at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport at 1:08 a.m., May 23. The flight of 868 miles broke the world distance record in the solar aviation category of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. Fellow pilot Bertrand Piccard then completed the third leg of the Across America flight, connecting Dallas, Texas, to St. Louis, Missouri.
It was a unique but challenging journey. The pre-flight preparations were intense because of the specific wind conditions, manifest after sunset. This allowed Piccard to live a true “sky surfing” experience. Because of the lightness and slow speed of the solar airplane, it literally rode the updraft and downdraft of the mountain winds. This is clearly visible on the flight profile, a phenomenon that caused the plane to rise and fall, riding the wind waves.
The flight was a perfect training experience for both the pilot and the team in the Mission Control Center. It has reconfirmed the need to remain flexible and try to request, when possible, permission to fly at different altitudes to local air traffic controllers. Having options can help avoid being stuck in a segment that’s experiencing unique winds – but it’s not always possible due to dense air traffic flying below the solar airplane.
The gigantic dimensions of this ultra-lightweight revolutionary airplane, capable of flying day and night without fuel, are its trademark feature. To build it, the whole team had to push back the frontiers of knowledge in materials science, energy management and the man-machine interface. Every one of its take-offs, propelled silently by its four electric motors, inspires us to consider using clean, new technologies to free our society, little by little, from dependence on fossil energy. “Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message,” says Piccard.
In addition to the solar panels, the Solar Impulse comes equipped with lithium batteries in the wing. DFW Airport is the second of four stops for Solar Impulse's cross-country journey from San Francisco to New York City.
“It's a new beginning of aviation with no fuel,” Piccard says. “There is one pilot only. No passenger. You fly only by good weather. Some people say it has no future. But we see that with technology and pioneering spirit, first we have opened the door to start something. And then there's a revolution in technology. Maybe in 50 years, there will be aircraft flying on solar power. But today's technology will not allow it."
The limitation is mostly because the pilot needs to recharge, not the aircraft. Theoretically, the plane could fly indefinitely with the right weather conditions, but with only one pilot, no autopilot and no bathroom, it's not practical. By 2015, the goal is to build a plane with a bigger cockpit with the amenities the pilot needs to fly for five to seven days straight without landing.