GRAPEVINE –– Did you see a mysterious craft in the skies above North Texas overnight? Well, we're here to solve that mystery for you.
It was actually the world's most advanced solar plane and it landed at about 1:08 a.m. Thursday at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport after flying about 20 hours from Phoenix.
The carbon fibre Solar Impulse, with a 208-foot wingspan, flew in from Phoenix during its second leg of a cross-country trip that began May 3 from the San Francisco Bay Area. The plane is the first able to fly day and night without fuel or polluting emissions.
"When we fly this plane, it's just gorgeous," said Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss inventor born in France who co-founded the Impulse team with André Borschberg. "It's completely silent. It's strange to fly, so for a pilot it's a challenge. It flies slowly so you have a beautiful view. The goal is not to go fast; the goal is to fly almost forever."
While Piccard flew the first leg of the trip, Borschberg was in the pilot's seat during the second leg that started at about 5 a.m. Wednesday in Phoenix and was completed at D/FW. With a distance of about 830 miles, the flight set an absolute distance world record in solar aviation.
“There is no other plane like this in the world,” Piccard said. He and Borschberg, both Swiss pilots, have been taking turns flying the plane.
The experimental aircraft is a feat in engineering. It weighs as much as a small car, yet it has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 covered with 12,000 solar cells. The panels charge the batteries to propel the plane, which uses as much power as a scooter. The Solar Impulse relies on stored power to fly after dark.
“This airplane is the first ever in the history of aviation who could fly day and night with absolutely no fuel,” Piccard said.
It can climb to 28,000 feet, but it coasts at no more than 43 miles per hour. The trip from Arizona to Dallas took 18 hours and 21 minutes. The next model will be designed to fly for days at a time.
The pilots underwent special training, including meditation, just to stay awake for that long.
“If you focus on what you do and what you have- what you enjoy- in fact, you don’t feel the time passing,” said Borschberg who piloted the plane on its most recent journey.
He and Piccard admit the plane is not designed to revolutionize the airline industry. The plane barely holds one person and is very vulnerable to air currents and weather. Yet its backers simply hope to show what renewable energy can accomplish.
“Honestly, I don’t believe there will be very soon applications for airliners,” Piccard said. “But there is already a lot of applications of these technologies on the ground… Our goal with Solar Impulse is to make a revolution in the mindset of the people when they think about energy.”
Next on the itinerary for the Solar Impulse is St. Louis and a trip around the world is planned sometime in the next two years.
How does it fly using solar power at night? Here their answer:
At midday, each square meter of land surface receives, in the form of light energy, the equivalent of 1000 watts, or 1.3 horsepower of light power. Over 24 hours, this sun energy averages out at just 250W/m². With 200m² of photovoltaic cells and a 12 % total efficiency of the propulsion chain, the plane’s motors achieve an average power of 8 HP or 6kW.
That’s roughly the amount of power the Wright brothers had available to them in 1903 when they made their first powered flight. And it is with that energy, optimized from the solar panel to the propeller, that Solar Impulse managed to fly day and night without fuel!
You can check out the plane for free at an open house from 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Saturday at D/FW Airport. Click here to register.
Read more about the plane at their official site.