Pilot Bertrand Piccard - a former psychiatrist inspired by feats of daring do and renewable energy's potential in aviation - will embark on the first transcontinental flight in a solar airplane across the United States tomorrow.
Piccard and partner André Borschberg will alternate legs of the journey, piloting a small sustainable airplane named the Solar Impulse. There will be planned stopovers in Phoenix, Dallas, St. Louis and Washington, and the flight will terminate at New York's Kennedy Airport in late June, the New York Times reports.
Piccard is the president of Solar Impulse, the designer of the plane, which is close to the size of the 240+ passenger Airbus A340. Key differences are that Solar Impulse's aircraft weighs the same as a family car due to a totally (and totally fragile) carbon fiber frame. Its maximum airspeed is 45 Mph, and it can fly for 18-20 hour durations. It could technically go on indefinitely, but pilots are only human.
Solar Impulse's experimental design is also extremely sensitive to turbulence, the Times noted. The team must remain vigilant of the flight risks, calling to mind Piccard's ancestors - science and engineering daredevils that made the world's first trips to the stratosphere in a balloon and to the Earth's crust in a submersible.
Piccard is no slouch. He was part of a team that nearly circumnavigated the globe in a balloon, and last June, piloted Solar Impulse on what could technically be considered as the first intercontinental flight for a solar plane - solo. The plane originated in Switzerland, stopped over in Madrid due to a technical glitch, and then continued onward to Morocco for a total of 1,550-miles. It took the plane 20 hours to complete its journey.
It will be a long time before solar power serves commercial flight, but Piccard may be securing a place in aviation history alongside Earhart, Lear, and Yeager. Would aviation pioneers ever have fathomed that the industry would become what it is today? Only the future holds what is possible.