Solar-powered history

Pilots Bertrand Piccard (at right) and Andre Borschberg on cloud nine after their epic undertaking. The final leg of their project capped a 40,000km journey across four continents, two oceans and three seas.
Pilots Bertrand Piccard (at right) and Andre Borschberg on cloud nine after their epic undertaking. The final leg of their project capped a 40,000km journey across four continents, two oceans and three seas. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Pioneering pilots hope project will spur progress in clean energy

ABU DHABI • The Solar Impulse 2 has completed its epic journey to become the first sun-powered plane to circle the globe without a drop of fuel to promote renewable energy.

The plane touched down in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi yesterday after a more than 48-hour-long flight from Cairo, the final leg in its journey which began on March 9 last year.

Swiss explorer and project director Bertrand Piccard was in the cockpit during the 2,763km flight from Cairo, crossing the Red Sea, the vast Saudi desert and flying over the Gulf.

  • Aviation milestones


    • No heavier than a car but with the wingspan of a Boeing 747, the four-engine, battery-powered aircraft relies on around 17,000 solar cells embedded in its wings.

    • Solar Impulse 2 flew 40,000km without fuel at an average speed of 80kmh.

    • The pilots used oxygen tanks to breathe at high altitude and wore suits designed to withstand temperatures ranging from minus 20 deg C to 35 deg C.

    • Nineteen official aviation records were set.

    • Pilot Andre Borschberg broke the record for the longest uninterrupted journey with his solo 8,924km flight between Nagoya in Japan and Hawaii, lasting nearly 118 hours.


    • In 1986, Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan flew the first round-the-world trip without stop-offs or refuelling, covering 42,000km in nine days.

    • In 2005, the late adventurer Steve Fossett flew round the world without stop-offs or refuelling aboard an ultra-light engine aircraft, travelling 36,817km in 67 hours.

    • In 2006, he flew round the globe non-stop and without refuelling in 76 hours, 45 minutes, setting the record for the longest flight by any aircraft covering 42,450km.


The flight capped a remarkable 42,000km journey across four continents, two oceans and three seas.

"The future is clean, the future is you, the future is now, let's take it further," said Dr Piccard, a psychiatrist who made the first non-stop balloon flight around the world in 1999. He said the technologies used on Solar Impulse 2 could be used on the ground in daily life to halve emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for climate change.


The future is clean, the future is you, the future is now, let’s take it further. One thing I would like for you to  remember: More than an achievement in the history of aviation, Solar Impulse has made an achievement in  (the) history of energy. 

DR BERTRAND PICCARD, who took turns at the controls of the aircraft with Mr Andre Borschberg.


This is a historic day for Captain Piccard and the Solar Impulse team, but it is also a historic day for humanity. You may be ending your around-the-world flight today, but the journey to a more sustainable world is just beginning. The Solar Impulse team is helping to pilot us to that future.


Dubbed the "paper plane", Solar Impulse 2 has been circumnavigating the globe in stages, with Dr Piccard and his compatriot, engineer Andre Borschberg, 63, taking turns at the controls of the single-seater.

Dr Piccard, 58, has said he launched the project in 2003 to show that renewable energy "can achieve the impossible".

The attempt was initially expected to last five months, including 25 days of actual flying. But the aircraft was grounded last July when its solar-powered batteries suffered problems halfway through the trip. The project has also been beset by bad weather and illness.

While in the air, the pilot was constantly in contact with mission control in Monaco, where a team of weathermen, mathematicians and engineers monitored the route and prepared flight strategies.

While the pilots do not expect commercial solar-powered planes any time soon, they hope the project will help spur wider progress in clean energy.

"We can hardly believe that we made it, it's still a little bit like in a dream...," Dr Piccard said.

Besides continuing to promote renewable energy, the pair plan to launch a global council to advise governments and develop new applications for clean energy technology.



6 things about Solar Impulse 2's amazing voyage,

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2016, with the headline 'Solar-powered history'. Print Edition | Subscribe