Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 December 2009
Issue No. 978
Sky High
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

I care for Icarus

Journalists from all over the world gathered 14-15 December in Geneva to attend the Global Media Day where they were briefed on the 2010 forecasts and challenges to air transport industry. Amirah Ibrahim joined them at the event where the media got the chance to visit the Solar Impulse project and talk to the inventors

Click to view caption
From left: Piccard and Borschberg unveil their HB-SIA; the 61-metre long wing carries 12,000 solar cells Clockwise from top: the HB-SIA unveiled to the media; a golden opportunity for a photo with Piccard; a virtual flight test

Solar power just made aviation history, as two Swiss adventurers succeeded in building a solar-powered aircraft which they hope will be the first to circle the globe _ in 25 days. Is the age of the solar-powered airplane upon us?

Ten years ago, on 21 March 1999, after 19 days, 21 hours and 47 minutes in the air, Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones's Roziere balloon landed in the Egyptian desert, so ending the first non-stop circumnavigation of the earth in a balloon.

On landing, just 40 kg remained of the 3.7 tons of the liquid propane with which the two had taken off from Chateau d’uex. Realising that a lack of fuel could have doomed the adventure, Bertrand Piccard promised to himself to repeat his circumnavigation of the world, but this time without fuel or polluting emissions. From this promise the Solar Impulse project was born.

"At the time the circumnavigation was an end in itself, it was simply a means of going further, a step allowing me to commit myself more actively to humanitarian actions and the environment. The outcome is the Solar Impulse solar aircraft project," started Piccard.

After ten years of hard working, by mid 2009, Bertrand Piccard, psychiatrist and aeronaut and Andre Borschberg, an engineer trained as a fighter pilot, unveiled a prototype of an incredible solar-powered airplane that would one day circle the globe.

The Solar Impulse team is aiming for a 36-hour flight sequence that will last two days and one night, propelled only by solar energy. Once that test is completed, they plan on traveling around the world.

"If an aircraft is able to fly day and night without fuel, propelled solely by solar energy, let no one come and claim that it is impossible to do the same thing for motor vehicles, heating and air conditioning systems and computers," said Piccard.

Piccard invited dozens of media representatives to a close look to the solar-powered plane sheltered in a long hangar at the end of Dubendorf Airfield.

The Solar Impulse is made out of carbon fibre concentrate, looks like a glider, and has a wingspan of over 60 metres. The wings are covered in almost 12,000 solar cells which store excess power in over 400 kilograms worth of batteries. These solar cells power four ten-horsepower electric motors, which propel the plane into flight.

A solar-powered solo airplane is nice. Yet, how does it bring anything to the masses? "When the Wright brothers, bicycle mechanics and inventors, made their first flight in 1903, they were flying a one-seater plane. No one knew then that 25 years on, 200 passengers would have cross the Atlantic Ocean on board an airplane," replied Piccard.

Four weeks ago, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA taxied down the runway powered by its own engines. Test pilot Markus Scherdel cautiously took to the runway under the watchful eyes of the whole team, with computers monitoring the plane's behaviour online via embedded telemetric devices.

"The faster the plane goes the more lift it gets from its wings, meaning that there is less load on the wheels', explained Picard.

The results of these initial tests have fully met expectations of the Solar Impulse team.

The following stage was to take the prototype up to its 35 km/h take-off speed and to do its first few "flea hops" two weeks ago.

As the aircraft gently gathered speed, the huge wings of the Solar Impulse gradually rose into the air. After some 350 metres of flight at an altitude of one metre, the prototype gracefully landed on the centre of the runway, triggering frenzied applause from the team.

"On the one hand I find it terrific to see a dream come true. For over ten years now, I have dreamt of a solar aircraft capable of flying day and night without fuel and promoting renewable energy," commented Piccard.

At this stage the solar panels have not yet been connected. With the positive conclusion of this initial 'flea hop', the Solar Impulse HB-SIA will now be dismantled and transported to the airfield at Payerne (VD).

The aircraft will be making its first solar test flights in early 2010, gradually increasing flight duration until it makes its first night flight using solar energy.

Five stopovers are planned to change pilots and advertise the adventure to the public, politicians and scientific authorities. Each flight leg will last from 3 to 4 days, which is considered to be the maximum a single pilot can endure.

"The plane will take off from Switzerland to Dubai, the first stop, then to China, Hawaii, the US and finally lands in Morroco," explained Piccard.

But why not to land in Cairo among the five stopovers as he did ten years ago with his balloon? "Simply, because the plane must fly continuously on each stage over a destination of 7-8 thousand kilometres. This is not the case from Switzerland to Cairo, but to Dubai is OK," Piccard replied to a question by Al-Ahram Weekly.

In order to complete the round-the-world flight, two airplanes need to be built. The first airplane, the prototype HB-SIA, has a 61-metre wingspan weighing 1500 kg, whereas the final airplane, called HB-SIB, will almost have an 80-metre wingspan weighing 2000 kg.

The project is completely financed by a number of sponsors as well as donations from individuals. The first level of the supporters club 'Friends' insures getting news updates about the solar impulse for free. The second 'Adventurer' costs a modest 35 euros and provides one with the team badge every year. The 'Innovator' level allows donors to choose their own solar cell among the 10,748 cells on the wing and sign it, as well as attaching a picture or flag. You could find yourself next to Prince Albert, Paulo Coelho, Buzz Aldrin or other patrons for 135 euros.

The 'Explorer' level gives donors a chance to visit the solar impulse headquarters, rub shoulders with the pilots and discover the revolutionary aircraft for 1,350 euros. The 'Pioneer' level _ for 6,650 euros _ allows donors to occupy a place of honour on the airplane. During a VIP visit, they can inspect the HB-SIA prototype close-up and discover the Solar Impulse adventure from inside.

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