“It’s a new era. It’s not science fiction. It’s today.”
Such were the words of Swiss psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard after having just completed a 62-hour, non-stop solo flight across the Pacific Ocean without burning an ounce of fuel. Piccard landed in California on Saturday night after departing from Hawaii during an around-the-world trip with fellow pilot Andre Borschberg.
“It exists and clean technologies can do the impossible,” said Piccard about his squeaky-clean experimental aircraft, the Solar Impulse 2. “I crossed the bridge. I am officially in America.”
Given that he’d just landed after being awake for almost three days straight, we’ll forgive the man for not realizing he’d actually departed from America to begin with.
The Solar Impulse 2 has been in development since 2002 and currently boasts a maximum speed of 140 km/h, with a more realistic cruise speed of 90 km/h. It has a greater wingspan than a Boeing 747 despite being 200 times lighter and its wings carry 17,000 solar cells that power the propellers and charge its four lithium polymer batteries, which keep the plane running at night.
Piccard’s achievement was recognized on Earth Day, Friday, when U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the pilot, “While you are making history, we have also made history today” during a video call from the plane in reference to the signing of the Paris climate agreement.
While it’s an encouraging showcase of renewable energy, we’re still a while away from seeing solar-powered aircraft replace jets on commercial runways.
“The idea here is not so much that solar planes can immediately replace jet planes powered by fossil fuel,” said Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds.
“It is rather to give the pioneers of the technology inspiration for other uses of solar power.”
The aircraft has now completed more than half of its trip around the world and will make three more stops in the United States before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.
Here’s an awesome video of Piccard flying over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge: