Houston: A first of its kind ultra-lightweight plane powered completely by the sun is set to fly coast-to-coast this spring. The Solar Impulse plane will stop in Dallas city in Texas during its historic cross-country journey that begins on May 1, 2013 its creators announced on Tuesday. The plane, which requires zero fuel and relies solely on solar panels and battery power, would be the world's first plane powered purely by solar energy.
The two Swiss pilots of the plane, Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, want to complete a flight from Moffett Field to New York City, after spending 10 years designing it. It is expected to arrive in the Big Apple by early July 2013 and will stop in Phoenix (Arizona), Dallas-Ft Worth, Washington DC and either Nashville (Tennessee), Atlanta (Georgia) or St Louis along the way. "It carries only one pilot and no passengers, but it carries a lot of message," Piccard said. "Today we can't imagine having a solar plane with 200 passengers. But in 1903 it was exactly the same," he said, noting the sense of impossibility that surrounded the first airplane flight that took place that year.
"We don't know what's going to happen in the future, but we have to start and see where technology takes us," he said. The US flight is the latest step towards the ultimate goal of Solar Impulse team; that of making a flight around the world by 2015. The plane uses creative engineering and physics to harness the sun's energy for power even after the sun sets. It has a wingspan equivalent to a 747 jetliner, the weight of a station-wagon, and the power needs of a small scooter. The solar panels across its wings harness power from the sun during the day and lithium-polymer batteries store that energy for overnight trips.
A carbon-fibre material formed in a honeycomb structure makes up the bulk of the plane, which allows for its feather-weight. In 2010, the Solar Impulse plane completed a 26-hour overnight flight and in 2012 flew from Switzerland to Morocco without any fuel. To fly around the world, the team needs to fly for five days continuously, which the current plane isn't equipped for. They would also need to find more efficient batteries and motors, as well as improve the plane's reliability, Borschberg said.
"You have no time to do maintenance and no possibility to change parts," he said of an around-the-world trip. Piccard is also known for his flying adventures: in 1999 he travelled around the world in a hot air balloon. In its current form, however, the Solar Impulse is far from having any major practical application. The plane travels at a leisurely cruising speed that is lower than the highway speed limit in the United States and can hold just one passenger in a cramped cockpit.