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A Swiss Pilot Just Completed The Longest Solar-Powered Flight In Aviation History

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

On Friday, Swiss Pilot André Borschberg broke at least three world records.

Just before noon, Borschberg landed the Solar Impulse 2 plane in Hawaii after taking off from Japan nearly five days before. The plane was powered without a drop of jet fuel, using only electricity generated from the sun striking the photovoltaic panel across its wing.

Borschberg actually broke one world record before his flight ended, for taking the longest nonstop solo flight without refueling in aviation history. The previous record was a 76-hour flight, held by Steve Fossett for his nonstop flight around the world in 2005.

But when he landed, Borschberg also broke the record for the world’s longest successful solar-powered flight, both by time and by distance. The flight lasted 4 days, 21 hours and 50 minutes, and traveled 8,209 kilometers across the Pacific.

There has never been a solar flight as long as this in the history of aviation.

Theoretically, the Solar Impulse 2 plane could stay airborne indefinitely if it weren’t for the need for a human pilot, who at some point would need to sleep and eat. Because of strict weight limits, the plane can only carry a certain amount of food and water. Borschberg, for his part, reportedly only took intermittent 20-minute naps for the entire Japan-to-Hawaii flight.

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The Solar Impulse 2 was unveiled last year by Borschberg and pilot Bertrand Piccard, with the intention of flying around the world using only solar and battery power. The plane is about 5,000 lbs — or about the same as a car — with most of the weight contained in two 2077-pound batteries to power its night flight. It’s also pretty slow — the aircraft’s maximum speed is 87 miles per hour, meaning it has to stay in the air for several days in a row during long transoceanic legs.

Needless to say, it’s not a commercially viable plane. But Piccard and Borsrchberg say it’s less about commercial viability, and more about the promise of innovation.

“This is a clear message that clean technologies can achieve impossible goals,” Piccard said in a statement.

After today’s landing in Hawaii, Borshberg and Piccard will continue their attempt to fly around the world. The next leg will be from Honolulu to Phoenix, Arizona, and then the two will fly together across the Atlantic on a return journey to Abu Dhabi, where they first took off in May.