A 63-year-old former Swiss Air Force pilot and a hypnotherapist five years his junior with a penchant for hot-air balloon exploration completed a round-the-world trip in a solar-powered airplane, predicting that within a decade, commercial flights with electric aircraft will become a reality.
Bertrand Piccard, 58, touched down in his Solar Impulse early Tuesday in Abu Dhabi, completing the final leg of a 16-month multistage journey, the project team said. The plane has flown 26,750 miles since starting in March 2015.
“I’m sure that within 10 years, we’ll see electric airplanes transporting 50 passengers on short- to medium-haul flights,” Piccard said. “But it’s not enough. The same clean technologies used on Solar Impulse could be implemented on the ground in our daily life.”
Piccard took turns at the controls with Andre Borschberg to circumnavigate the globe without using any fuel. Each pilot was allowed 10 20-minute naps over the course of 24 hours, and the longest leg took five days. Solar Impulse flew near the Statue of Liberty and Egypt’s pyramids for photo opportunities. It was grounded for more than half a year in Hawaii due to battery overheating along the way.
Solar Impulse 2 has a wingspan as large as a conventional 747 and weighs about the same as a car, but it has an average airspeed of only 47 mph. 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.
The pilots have been promoting the aircraft, which is made of ultralight materials and relies on 12,000 solar panels for power, as a symbol of options for alternative energy to stave off global warming.
“When you speak of climate change, it is so boring for everybody,” Piccard said. “Everybody knows it is a disaster, so why continuously repeat it? Now you have to give hope to people with real solutions, and they exist. My hope is that people finally make a list of solutions rather than a list of problems,” he said.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.