(April 24, 2016) — An experimental plane flying around the world without a single drop of fuel landed in California after a two-and-a-half day flight across the Pacific.
Piloted by Swiss explorer and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse 2 touched down in Mountain View just before midnight (3 a.m. ET).
“It’s a new era. It’s not science fiction. It’s today,” Piccard told CNN from California after his successful voyage. “It exists and clean technologies can do the impossible.”
Images of the elegant solar aircraft, which has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 but only weighs about as much as an SUV, flying over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco Bay mark a significant achievement. The team has seen the project beset with problems and setbacks during its pioneering airborne circumnavigation.
“I’m very happy that everything works extremely well and the airplane is functioning as it should,” Piccard’s business partner and the plane’s other pilot, Swiss engineer Andre Borschberg, told CNN by phone from California just ahead of the successful, on-schedule landing.
“It’s a demonstration that the tech is reliable.”
The plane took off from Hawaii on Thursday, resuming a journey that had stalled on the island of Oahu for almost 10 months.
It lifted off just before sunrise Friday to cheers and applause. On arrival into the skies above California, it flew holding patterns for several hours above San Francisco Bay in celebration of the achievement.
As dusk fell over the city, the team posted striking images on its social media accounts.
Because the plane travels at about the same speed as a car, the Hawaii-California leg took just over 62 hours to complete.
While Piccard was at the controls for this ninth leg of the round-the-world trip, he and Borschberg, take turns flying the plane solo.
The flight has benefited from a “very stable weather window,” Solar Impulse spokeswoman Alexandra Gindroz said, and is expected to touch down on schedule.
The solar plane looks like a giant high-tech dragonfly and requires near-perfect conditions to fly.
After all, it’s the weather — particularly the sun — that ultimately decides the schedule of this journey, even with dozens of engineers and experts monitoring the plane’s every move.
“Nobody’s done this before,” managing director Gregory Blatt said. “There’s no guidebook. There’s no best practice.”
The team has learned this the hard way.
Rolling with the punches
The Solar Impulse 2 was originally supposed to land in Abu Dhabi, where it started its journey in March 2015, by the end of last summer.
But a series of frustrating weather delays in China slowed progress for weeks, followed by an unexpected diversion to Japan, where the aircraft was damaged on the tarmac by a storm.
Still, the pilots and their team of more than 100 pushed onward, repairing the aircraft and preparing it for what they called “the moment of truth” — the Pacific crossing to Hawaii.
It was a moment of human achievement. For almost five days and five nights, Borschberg piloted the plane wearing an oxygen mask as it climbed up 8,000 meters (5 miles) high during the day, its solar cells soaking up enough energy to propel the aircraft through the night.
‘We made a mistake’
While Borschberg set a new record for the solo flight, clocking in at 117 hours and 52 minutes, a chain of events caused the batteries to overheat.
It was only after he landed that the team discovered how bad the damage was.
“We made a mistake with our batteries,” Piccard said after the plane touched down in July. “It was a human mistake.”
And a mistake that took more than nine months to fix.
Back in the air
Fast forward to this spring, and the Solar Impulse 2 has new batteries, a new cooling system that can be manually operated by the pilot, and $20 million in fresh funding to keep the mission up and running.
The engineers and pilots flew more than eight training and maintenance flights over the past few months, and the plane has been performing remarkably well, Blatt said.
While the team is pumped up and feeling confident, Blatt said he recognizes the challenges ahead, including tricky springtime weather over the U.S. mainland.
After several stops in the United States, the pilots hope to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and then Europe or northern Africa.
They plan to return to the Middle East by late summer, completing a 35,000-kilometer (27,000-mile) trip around the world.
Piccard says he’s been working toward the realization of his dream for 17 years, and “the last 16 years have been more difficult than the flight itself. The flight was for me the accomplishment of this dream … and we can prove the reliability of these clean renewable technologies.”
At least in theory, the plane now has the ability to fly for an unlimited period, Borschberg said, with only the human factor limiting how long the plane could potentially stay on the air.
“When you have the possibility to fly forever, it is an incredible feeling,” he said.