On Monday in Abu Dhabi, two Swiss pilots set off in a solar-powered airplane in an attempt to circumnavigate the world — a first-of-its-kind, 22,000-mile endeavor that is scheduled to come full circle in five months.
The pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, will take turns flying the Solar Impulse-2, which, with its one-person cockpit and streamlined 236-foot wingspan, resembles a futuristic version of the Wright Brothers’ original aircraft more than anything seen in the sky today.
The flight, which will use zero fuel and relies entirely on 17,000 solar panels canvassing the plane’s carbon fiber wings, is meant to create awareness about replacing “old polluting technologies with clean and efficient technologies,” according to the pilots. Lithium-ion batteries, which make up about a quarter of the entire weight of the 5,000-pound aircraft, will store energy to keep the plane flying through the night.
In an indicator of how far solar-powered flight is from commercial success, the average flight speed is expected to be around 43 miles per hour. Major commercial airlines can fly over 600 miles per hour.
The pilots do not expect their immense efforts to result in overnight change in the airline industry, a fast-growing and significant source of global greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, they view the flights as a powerful indicator of the change that is both possible and necessary to avert global climate change catastrophe. Borschberg is an engineer, and while the Solar Impulse-2 itself may never be a commercial success, he believes many of the energy efficiency and technological developments associated with its production may go a long way towards achieving future advances.
“We have to realize that we are between the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh periods in the 20s of last century,” Borschberg said. “So it will take, as it took in the past 25, 30, 35 years to fly clean. New technologies will have to be developed, this will take time.”
In the immediate future, the flight is meant to help push politicians and global leaders to act to address climate change. Borschberg and Piccard are especially focused on drawing attention to those tasked with developing the next global climate agreement during the United Nations’ summit in Paris at the end of this year.
The first leg of the flight from Abu Dhabi to Oman, which covers about 250 miles and takes around 12 hours, is being piloted by Borschberg. The pilots are relying on 20-minute naps to keep them alert during the 500 hours in the air — something that will be especially challenging during the Atlantic and Pacific legs, which could take five or six days of nonstop flying to complete. They have been preparing physically as well as mentally for the demands of the trip.
“You have plenty of time and the only way to cope with this duration is to be in the present moment,” said Borschberg. “If you start thinking about how many hours left until you get to the destination you get crazy. So the only way is to be present … In some ways it’s almost a spiritual experience that we are going through.”
The Solar Impulse-2 has 12 scheduled stops and will be in the air for about 25 days over the course of the next five months. After Oman, the plane will head to India, China, and Myanmar, before crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. Once in the U.S. it will continue on to in Phoenix, Arizona, and JFK in New York City.
Borschberg and Piccard have been pursuing this goal for more than a decade, and in 2013 an earlier and even larger prototype, Solar Impulse-1, became the first solar-powered aircraft to cross the U.S.
The stakes of the flight, and the challenges the pilots must overcome, are in many ways analogous to the current role aviation plays in climate change mitigation. Aviation is the most carbon-intensive form of mass transportation when measured on a per-mile basis. As ClimateProgress recently reported, while aircraft greenhouse gas emissions are currently only responsible for 2 to 3 percent of total U.S. emissions, by 2050 the global industry could account for as much as 15 percent of all GHG emissions. The White House and the EPA are currently determining whether or not to place GHG limits on airplanes.