Solar-powered plane completes around-the-world journey

After 16 months and a 17-leg journey, a solar-powered plane finally completed its around-the-world flight attempt Monday evening when it touched down in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

The plane, called Solar Impulse 2, landed at Al Bateen Executive Airport a few minutes after 5 p.m. Pacific time, marking the first around-the-world solar flight.

Inside the plane, pilot Bertrand Piccard shouted, “We made it.”

The plane took off from Cairo on Saturday and traveled about 1,700 miles to Abu Dhabi. In a tweet a few hours after the plane took off, Piccard said he wanted Solar Impulse 2’s flight to be a “powerful demonstration” of the potential of clean technology.

Piccard and his fellow pilot, Andre Borschberg, took turns piloting the plane for each leg of the journey since it can only hold one person at a time.

Solar Impulse 2 has a wingspan as large as a conventional 747, weighs about the same as a car, but it has an average airspeed of only 47 miles per hour.

The plane’s wings have more than 17,000 solar cells that power four electric motors. The solar cells recharge lithium batteries that allow the plane to fly at night.

In an interview with The Times in July 2015, Piccard, who in 1999 was one of two pilots to complete the first nonstop, around-the-world balloon flight, said he first dreamed of a solar-powered plane more than a decade ago.

"It was not a crazy dream," Piccard said. "Now it's reality."

The plane and its flight crew did face setbacks over the course of the journey. In July 2015, the plane’s batteries overheated during a five-day, five-night flight from Nagoya, Japan, to Hawaii, which grounded the plane until April.

Analysts and the pilots themselves have said the solar-powered plane is not necessarily the future of air transportation. Rather, the plane is just one example of the rapidly expanding research into alternative aircraft propulsion.

Even before Solar Impulse 2 made its first flight, several organizations began developing fully electric aircraft, including one by European aerospace giant Airbus. 

“We’re just starting to scratch the surface and doing demonstrator airplanes in this area that will yield a whole new era of airplanes,” said Richard Anderson, director of Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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UPDATES:

5:25 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the plane’s landing in Abu Dhabi.

This article was originally published at 1:55 p.m.

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