Solar Impulse finishes groundbreaking trip around the world

More than 500 days after its journey began, Solar Impulse touched down in Abu Dhabi on Monday, becoming the zero-fuel aircraft in history to circumnavigate the globe thanks to photovoltaic cells and the sun’s rays.

A single-seat plane flown alternately by Swiss aviators Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse began its voyage in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015 and returned there Monday after a 17-stage journey that covered approximately 42,000 kilometers (26,000 miles) and took it over four continents, three different seas and a pair of oceans, according to BBC News.

With Piccard in the cockpit for the final leg, Solar Impulse lifted off from Cairo over the weekend. Two days and 47 minutes after lifting off, it landed for the last time, bringing the first ever solar-powered flight around the world to a close and breaking a total of 19 aviation records in the process – including one for the longest non-stop solo flight (4 days, 21 hours, 52 minutes) during a flight from Japan to Hawaii last summer, USA Today noted.

Piccard completed the journey shortly before dawn in the United Arab Emirates, and published reports indicate that moments after landing, he gave a thumbs up from the cockpit and said, “We made it! We made it! Altogether, we did it!” Later, while onlookers cheered and applauded, he added, “The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further.”

solar impulse touchdown

Solar Impulse touching down. (Credit: EPA)

Solar Impulse Project not About Setting Records, Pilot Emphasizes

Solar Impulse landed in Cairo on July 11 after a nearly 49-hour voyage from Spain and had been expected to depart on the final leg of its journey shortly thereafter. However, the trip was delayed briefly due to a heat wave in Saudi Arabia, forcing Piccard and Borschberg to wait a bit longer to enjoy the end of their 17-year mission to fly around the world using only solar power.

Using an aircraft that was made of carbon fiber and which had a wingspan larger than that of a Boeing 747, the Solar Impulse team relied on an array of 17,000 photovoltaic cells located on the wings of the plane to collect energy from the sun, some of which powered the plane and some of which was stored in batteries so that it could fly during the nighttime.

The Solar Impulse was as heavy as a family-sized automobile but was still able to reach speeds up to 62 mph (100 kph) and altitudes of nearly 28,000 feet (8,500 meters). The voyage was divided into 17 legs that took the plane and its pilots from the UAE to Oman, then to India, Myanmar, China, Japan, the US, Spain, and Egypt before returning to Abu Dhabi.

While the voyage itself is quite a feat, Piccard emphasized that personal achievements were not the main focus of the project, telling USA Today, “The most important thing isn’t to make world records. It’s to show what we can do with clean technologies.” Those comments echo ones made by Piccard to Reuters before the start of the 17th and final leg, in which he noted that while “the round the world flight ends in Abu Dhabi,” that the project’s core mission – promoting “clean technologies around the world” – was far from over.


Image credit: Solar Impulse