The Solar-Powered Plane That'll Fly Around the World

After a successful — if sometimes harrowing — flight across the U.S. in a prototype, two intrepid pilots strive to create a solar-powered plane capable of circling the globe. 

On July 5, 2012, the buzz of André Borschberg’s cell phone pulled him out of a meeting at a military airfield northeast of Lausanne, Switzerland. The news wasn’t good. The former Swiss Air Force pilot rushed to his helicopter and raced the familiar 45-minute route to Dübendorf, near Zurich.

After touching down at the helipad, he sprinted to the cavernous hangar and swung open its blue door to find the splintered remains of a critical piece of his latest engineering endeavor: part of the 236-foot-long carbon fiber wing of a solar plane designed to circumnavigate the globe. A team of 40 engineers had spent nine months designing this wing, another nine months building it, and the past four weeks testing it. In a final round of tests, the team had hung an elaborate wooden framework and up to 6 tons of lead weights off the spine of the wing — known as the wing spar — to simulate the stress of the forces the plane could experience during heavy turbulence. Because of a mistake in the design, the spar had buckled. 

The plane, christened Solar Impulse 2 (the first Solar Impulse was a prototype; see “On a Wing and a Photon,” page 41), has been 10 years and about $150 million in the making. Next year, Borschberg and project partner Bertrand Piccard plan to fly the plane around the world, taking turns on four- to five-day hops over the course of three or four months. But that’s assuming the plane is ready by then...

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