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At 3,527 pounds, Solar Impulse is light for a plane. It weighs only about as much as a compact car. (Solar Impulse / AP Images)

A Flight Fueled by the Sun

Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard attempts to make the first solar-powered journey across America

By Jennifer Marino Walters | May 20 , 2013
<p>PHOTO: 12,000 solar cells as thin as a human hair recharge the plane’s batteries when exposed to sunlight. (Chen Gang / Xinhua / Photoshot / Newscom) </p><p> MAP: <i>Solar Impulse</i> will make five stops across the country, the last one in New York City in July. (Jim McMahon)</p>

PHOTO: 12,000 solar cells as thin as a human hair recharge the plane’s batteries when exposed to sunlight. (Chen Gang / Xinhua / Photoshot / Newscom)

MAP: Solar Impulse will make five stops across the country, the last one in New York City in July. (Jim McMahon)

Bertrand Piccard is on a mission to make history. Early in May, the Swiss pilot took to the skies in his aircraft Solar Impulse, hoping it will become the first solar-powered airplane capable of flying day and night to cross the United States.

Piccard took off from a suburb of San Francisco at 6:12 a.m. Pacific Time. After an 18-hour-and-18-minute flight, Piccard landed Solar Impulse in Phoenix, Arizona, at 12:30 a.m. Mountain Time. It was the first of five legs of the historic cross-country flight that is scheduled to end in New York in early July. Piccard and Solar Impulse’s co-founder, André Borschberg, will take turns flying the plane without using a single drop of fuel.

“We’ve been dreaming about crossing the United States for years—the land of scientific research, innovation, and aviation pioneers,” Piccard and Borschberg said in a statement. “We are thrilled to have safely and successfully completed the first leg.”

A HISTORIC TRIP

Solar Impulse is made of revolutionary lightweight carbon fiber. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 747 (208 feet) and weighs 3,527 pounds—about the same as a compact car. It has 12,000 solar cells that are as thin as a human hair built into its wings. The solar cells recharge the plane’s batteries during the day, allowing it to fly at night.

During the first leg of Solar Impulse’s cross-country flight, it reached an average cruising speed of 40.6 miles per hour and flew at altitudes of up to 21,000 feet. The total flight distance was 650 miles. The plane is scheduled to land in Dallas, Texas, sometime this week. It will then travel to St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., before making its final stop in New York City.

CLEAN ENERGY

Last year, Piccard flew Solar Impulse from Spain to Morocco, making it the first manned solar plane to fly from one continent to another. He and Borschberg are looking to make history again in 2015, when they plan to make Solar Impulse the first solar-powered plane to fly around the world.

Borschberg and Piccard also hope the cross-country flight will inspire people to use green technology and renewable energy sources, including the sun and the wind. Companies are starting to make solar-powered scooters and pedal vehicles, such as the Elf trike being sold in North Carolina. But commercial flights aboard solar airplanes may still be decades away, and experts say a marketable solar-powered car is still very far down the road.

To follow the remaining legs of Solar Impulse’s flight across the U.S., visit www.solarimpulse.com. The airplane’s position, altitude, and speed will be shown live, and cameras fitted inside the cockpit will stream video.

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