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The Solar-Powered Airplane Reaches the End of the Sky Road

We swung by its last public meet-and-greet Sunday, to see the semi-famous airplane in person, and take part in—what we assumed would be—screaming, adoring crowds.

by Ben Richmond and Derek Mead
Jul 15 2013, 8:31pm
The Solar Impulse from the front. All photos via Derek Mead.

The Solar Impulse, after crossing the United States from California to New York without stopping for fuel once, has completed its mission and will be disassembled and sent back to Switzerland.

We swung by its last public meet-and-greet Sunday, in the far reaches of John F. Kennedy International Airport, in the far reaches of Queens, to greet the semi-famous airplane in person, and take part in—what we assumed would be—screaming, adoring crowds.

It was actually much more of a Sunday in the hangar. The Solar Impulse was propped up in the middle of the room, as spotlights tracked calmly and evenly around the massive room. Soft, airport-style jazz wafted through. We weren't sure, but it seemed like there was maybe a DJ controlling the music in the back.

Swiss pride and disco affection were on display.

The Solar Impulse is worth seeing in person, if you have the chance. It’s strikingly slender with huge, ridiculous wings—as wide as a jumbo jet’s. It’s something like a mosquito with dragonfly wings.

View from the back.

It’s hard to estimate how many people were visiting while we were there—if you’ve ever been in an airliner hanger, you know that it’s probably impossible for one to ever feel full. Still, Alenka Zibetto, Solar Impulse’s media relations coordinator, admitted that events other cities were a bit more lively.

“We’re so far out of town,” she said, seemingly forgiving the missing crowds.

It's hard to convey in a picture just how big and bizarre the Solar Impulse is. To give some perspective, there is another set of motors outside of this frame.

Zibetto and the Solar Impulse team, save for either Bertrand Piccard or André Borschberg who alternated in the Impulse’s single pilot seat, are completing their own trip across the  United States. The 40-member or so media and ground team would get the Solar Impulse in the air and then pack up their displays and modular Swiss kitchen—a necessity born of spending an entire trip across America in remote airfields.

After everything was packed, the team flew out on conventionally fueled flights to the next location, which got them in with enough time to unpack and prepare for the Solar Impulse’s arrival late that night. As Motherboard covered, the Solar Impulse is really slow.

The experimental model that crossed America came over from Switzerland  disassembled in a bigger plane, and will return across the Atlantic in the same state. Zibetto joked that the biggest maintenance issue—an 8-foot tear in the left wing’s fabric—came on the last leg of the journey from Washington D.C. to New York because “[the airplane] was upset that she would be disassembled.”

What's left of the tear.

Parenthetically, the French for airplane, “avion,” is masculine, but the team still used the feminine pronoun. Conclude what you will. I was disappointed to find that they didn’t have any fun nicknames for the Solar Impulse, although it remains possible that the nicknames exist but are too vulgar to be shared with outsiders.

As the foam that surrounded the batteries in the engine casings wasn’t waterproof, this model, officially known as the HB-SIA, couldn’t fly over the ocean or through humid or rough weather. The next generation, the HB-SIB, will correct this in preparation for a flight around the entire globe.

Borschberg has said elsewhere that the only limit on the HB-SIA is the pilot; the aircraft can stay aloft overnight and recharge in the morning. The next plane will try to be more accommodating to its human inhabitant with the inclusion of an autopilot, room for food and an integrated toilet.

You can choose what sounds worst to you—peeing into a bottle or vigilance for hours upon hours. I think I choose the latter, which sounds like the world’s worst video game, “Desert Bus.” Either way, for someone to make the three to five day trip across the Atlantic, the HB-SIB is going to have to correct both of these things.

For now, the team and the plane are both being disassembled and sent back to Switzerland. It was sort of like the wrap party in Los Angeles at the end of Spinal Tap--what they meant to prove has been proven, what did it matter if the JFK event was mellow? There's a global tour coming up, and just like Tap's Sex Farm, the Solar Impulse was no doubt going to be big in Japan.

Check out Motherboard's Upgrade Video about the Solar Impulse here.