World’s craziest pilot flies solar-powered plane across the ocean in darkness

Jun 5, 2012

Bertrand Piccardis set out to become the solar Charles Lindbergh this morning, taking off in the world’s first solar-powered jumbo jet, the Solar Impulse, and setting a record for the first transcontinental flight for a solar-powered plane.

Piccardis, a 54 year-old Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist, is flying from Madrid, Spain, to Tangiers, Morocco, which is apparently pursuing an aggressive green energy initiative with its Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy.

Though it doesn’t go very fast—only about 70 mph—Solar Impulse set a record for the highest altitude for a solar-powered plane at just over 30,000 feet, and its cruising altitude on the way to Morocco will be just over 27,000 feet. And though it’s outfitted with 12,000 solar panels, the plane took off in darkness, at 5:22am, and will cross over the Strait of Gibraltar tonight, landing in Tangiers at about 11pm.

I’m not normally superstitious, except when I board a plane: as soon as we start taxiing for the runway I see visions of a fiery death, the plane plummeting toward the earth and breaking apart or just exploding mid-air. This is the one time I truly believe that my imagination is prophetic. I usually get through it by popping a Xanax or three along with whatever concoction is available in the little bar cart they wheel around—none of which is likely available to Piccardis on his solar expedition.

Obviously, Solar Impulse’s technology has been tested—it’s been buit over the last 10 years, reportedly at a cost of $115 million, and has already proven itself on many intercontinental flights in Europe. And the fact that flying a solar-powered plane over the ocean at night sounds completely insane to me doesn’t necessarily mean anything—I’m no pilot. But it’s clearly an incredible feat. How many times do we really make aviation history? Consumer planes got outfitted with jet engines in the 1960s, and nothing much has changed since.

But Piccardis apparently doesn’t envision future commercial flight going solar—at least in the model of the Impulse. Rather, the point is to prove that we can achieve more than we’ve been achieving in green energy if we put our minds (and dollars) to it.

“The question is not to use solar power for normal aeroplanes,” he told the AFP in an interview from the cockpit. “The question is more to demonstrate that we can achieve incredible goals, almost impossible goals with new technologies, without fuel, just with solar energy, and raise awareness that if we can do it in the air of course everybody can do it on the ground.”

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