Solar airplane lands in New York, ends US trip

The experimental Solar Impulse plane, powered by the sun, completed a transcontinental trip across the United States late Saturday, touching down in New York despite a rip in the fabric of one wing.

The giant, single-person plane landed at New York's John F Kennedy airport at 11:11 pm (0311 GMT), ahead of its originally scheduled time due to a 2.5-meter (eight-foot) long tear that appeared on the fabric of the lower side of the left wing.

Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg was met on the tarmac by compatriot and fellow pilot Bertrand Piccard, and the two posed triumphantly for pictures.

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The men had taken turns flying the spindly, long-winged plane across the country.

The Solar Impulse, which runs on four electric propellers powered by an array of solar cells mounted on the plane's 63-meter wingspan, lifted off just before dawn Saturday from Washington Dulles International Airport.

"This last leg was especially difficult due to the damage of the fabric on the left wing," Borschberg told reporters upon landing after the 18 hour, 23 minute flight.

The team looked at all possible scenarios, "including bailing out over the Atlantic," he said. "But this type of problem is inherent to every experimental endeavor."

Flying coast-to-coast "has always been a mythical milestone full of challenges for aviation pioneers," added Piccard. "During this journey, we had to find solutions for a lot of unforeseen situations, which obliged us to develop new skills and strategies."

The team also "pushed the boundaries of clean technologies and renewable energies to unprecedented levels," he said.

Piccard said they had mixed feelings about the end of their long trip. "Normally you feel a bit sad and nostalgic, but with the problem with the wing, we feel relieved," he said.

The coast-to-coast US journey began on May 3, near San Francisco, California. The plane then landed in Phoenix (Arizona), Dallas/Fort Worth (Texas), St. Louis (Missouri), Cincinnati (Ohio) and the capital, Washington.

Borschberg was forced to pass the hours Saturday by circling over the Atlantic not far from the "Big Apple," before being allowed to fly over the city in the evening, due to heavy air traffic.

The light solar plane flies at around 70 kilometers (43 miles) per hour, and is especially sensitive to air turbulence.

Before the final leg, Piccard and Borschberg spoke of the most memorable moments from the cross-country flight.

For Piccard, a Swiss adventurer who founded Solar Impulse over a decade ago, one of those moments was flying past the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco at the very start of the journey.

Borschberg recalled one of the most dangerous moments of the trip, when wind threatened to unbalance the aircraft.

The crossing has been "more difficult than expected because of the weather: There were a lot of tornadoes, storms, causing several of our flights to be delayed or slowed down," Piccard said.

The Solar Impulse is powered by 12,000 solar cells and flies in the dark by reaching high altitudes during the day and gliding downward over long distances by night. It uses no fossil fuels.

Drawbacks include the tiny cockpit, vulnerability to turbulence and the lack of a toilet, so the pilots must relieve themselves by using an empty plastic water bottle on solo flights that can last up to 24 hours.

The current aircraft model, the HB-SIA, is soon to be phased out as the Swiss team prepares test flights next year of the second-generation aircraft, the HB-SIB.

Piccard said the next plane will be 10 percent bigger, with more power, reliability, an auto-pilot function and a toilet so that pilots can make the four to six-day long trips that will be part of its journey across the world in 2015.

The plane's American trip is just the latest in a series of groundbreaking flights across different parts of the world, including Europe and Africa.

by Ahmad KHATIB © 2013 AFP

Source: AFP
Date: Jul 7, 2013