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Aviation: Light Traveler

Lori Bryan

On a March afternoon eight years ago, Swiss native Bertrand Piccard, then 41 years old, flew the Breitling Orbiter 3 over Mauritania, completing the first nonstop circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon. The trip had taken 20 days. “When Bertrand did the project in 1999,” says André Borschberg, his present-day business partner, “the balloon was pushed by the wind, but he needed quite a lot of propane as a heating source. At the time, he thought, ‘Would it be possible to do the same thing, [fly] around the world, using only renewable energy?’ ”

In 2003, Piccard and a team of engineers, in pursuit of this idea, began designing the Solar Impulse, a solar-powered, single-pilot aircraft that someday might circle the globe. It will not be the first solar plane, but it could be the first such manned craft that, while flying all day, collects and stores enough energy to fly through the night. “To do that,” says Borschberg, a former fighter pilot in the Swiss air force who serves as CEO of the Solar Impulse group, “the plane has to be much bigger but also much lighter” than other solar-powered planes. The craft will measure 52 feet long, have a wingspan of more than 262 feet, contain close to 1,000 pounds of batteries, and weigh about two tons. It will travel at an average speed of 43 mph.

In late April, the team began building a prototype aircraft, with a wingspan of 198 feet, on a military base near Zurich. Various partners are involved in the project, including Dassault Aviation (for aircraft design and development), Solvay Group (for materials development), and Deutsche Bank (for financing). Borschberg reports that Solar Impulse has secured about $50 million of the $80 million needed to fund the project. He expects that the prototype will fly for the first time next year; planned benchmarks after that include an overnight trip in 2009 and a flight from New York to Paris in 2010. And then, if all goes well, the airplane will fly a five-leg journey, with a different pilot at the helm for each leg, around the planet in 2011.

“If you talk to the engineers,” Borschberg says, “[the goal] is to have the plane fly through the night. But this project is very much a symbol to show that technology can be in service to the environment and can be used to solve a very difficult challenge using only renewable energy.” When asked if he thinks that solar planes ever will be owned by individuals, he replies, “We’d like to open a way, to provide a contribution, but many more things will have to be done. But if you would put yourself in 1903, when the Wright Brothers flew [the Wright Flyer] about 850 feet, could you believe that some 50 years later we would use aircraft to fly across the Atlantic at 500 miles per hour with 250 passengers on board?”

Solar Impulse, +41.21.693.89.33, www.solarimpulse.com

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