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Solar Impulse Is Slower Than the First Airplane to Cross America

The two trips are separated by a century, but as pioneers of their respective fields—solar aviation and aviation itself—Solar Impulse, which just completed the first solar-powered transcontinental flight, and the Vin Fiz Flyer beg to be compared.

by Ben Richmond
Jul 8 2013, 7:30pm

With a slow and steady landing Saturday night at JFK, the Solar Impulse completed the first solar-powered transcontinental flight. Some—on this very website—have called the Solar Impulse’s journey an “airborne publicity” stunt, but that shouldn’t be taken as a slight. In spite of its Swiss origins, the Impulse is taking part in a hallowed American tradition: the old transcontinental flight publicity stunt.

In 1910, seven years after the Wright brothers took to the air in Kitty Hawk, the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst offered a $50,000 prize to the first person to fly coast-to-coast in fewer than 30 days. The challenge was taken up by Calbraith Perry Rodgers, the 49th licensed pilot ever and first private citizen to buy a Flier from the Wright brothers.

Financed through an endorsement deal with a grape drink called Vin Fiz, Rodgers flew across America in 1911. It took him 49 days, which meant that Rogers didn’t win the Hearst prize, but he would’ve beaten the Solar Impulse, which took 64 days to get to New York from California.

The two trips are separated by a century, but as pioneers of their respective fields—solar aviation and aviation itself—they beg to be compared. Sure, never stopping for fuel is an awesome feat. But does that really mean the Solar Impulse is better than the Vin Fiz Flyer? Only a Motherboard side-by-side comparison will tell.

SPEED

As stated above, the Solar Impulse is a strikingly slow airplane. Its average cruising speed was about 33 miles per hour, and the pilots clocked a total 105 hours and 41 minutes in the air getting to New York.

Rogers and the Vin Fiz Flyer would’ve left the Solar Impluse in its cloud of noxious exhaust, as he ripped across America at speeds between 45 and 55 miles per hour. It’s estimated that the Vin Fiz Flyer took only 82 hours and 41 minutes of airtime to cross America. That sounds better than the Solar Impulse but much worse than the five-and-a-half hours it takes on United.

The Vin Fiz taking off from Sheepshead Bay, NY, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edge: Vin Fiz Flyer.

COST AND SPONSORSHIP

There’s about $115 million invested in the Solar Impulse, whose main sponsors are the Omega watch company, Deutsche Bank, Solvay (an "international industrial Group active in Chemistry”), and the elevator and escalator company Schindler.

The Vin Fiz Flyer’s trip cost $23,000, which even when adjusted for inflation only comes to about $560,000—but a fraction of that big Impulse money. Rogers was sponsored by the Chicago meat packer J. Ogden Armour, of Armour hot dog fame, in exchange for calling his plane the Vin Fiz Flyer and writing Vin Fiz on the plane’s wings and rudders.

Edge: the  Solar Impulse--granted those millions of dollars went to developing an airplane that could, in theory, fly forever, fueling itself in the Sun all day, and staying aloft at night via 800 pounds of batteries.

Still, now that we live in the era of the Red Bull space jump, it’s comforting to remember that visible corporate sponsorship isn’t a new thing. In fact, after 100 years maybe all of our baseball stadiums named after banks will seem quaint and charming. Also, the Fourth of July was just the other day, so I’m feeling both patriotic and fond of hot dogs, therefore the edge goes to the Vin Fiz Flyer.

DANGER QUOTIENT

According to the videos on their website, the Solar Impulse is an experimental plane and so the pilots do wear parachutes. They’re confident that it’s a safe vessel, but the trip has been hard on the ultra light craft. During the final leg of its journey from Washington to New York, the fabric on one of the wings suffered an 8-foot tear, which NBC reported meant that the Impulse would have to forgo a photo op fly-by of the Statue of Liberty to land at JFK earlier than expected. There was apparently contemplation of bailing out over the Atlantic, but that proved to be unnecessary. Andre Borschberg, the pilot on that leg of the journey, is a veteran of the Swiss Air Force and a real pro. 

The rip. Via © Solar Impulse |Revillard| Rezo.ch

Rogers, on the other hand, was taught to fly with a 90 minute lesson from Orville Wright and had only logged 60 hours of flight time before setting out across America. Consequently the Vin Fiz spent a lot of time crashing and then being repaired. It’s estimated that the Fiz crashed anywhere between 16 and 39 times. Since some of those could charitably be called “rough landings” it’s hard to say exactly how many times it crashed. And yet the Vin Fiz had to be repaired so many times en route that by the time it reached the West Coast, every piece of the aircraft save a rudder and strut had been replaced. It was basically a whole different plane.

Poor Rogers didn’t have a seatbelt, much less a parachute, and thus he spent a lot of the trip bandaged up from crashing into chicken sheds and the like, and he flew with his leg in a cast for part of the journey. It’s not surprising that Rogers wasn’t able to win the Hearst Prize; it’s surprising he made it all the way to California alive.

Rodgers on crutches, left, via Flickr

Edge: Normally, I’d give this one to the more dangerous airplane without even needing to think twice, because danger is self-evidently cool, but this seems like a good week to encourage aviation safety. Therefore, the edge goes to Solar Impulse.

 

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Solar Impulse was featured in an episode of the original Motherboard series, Upgrade

REASONS FOR THE PUBLICITY STUNT

Vin Fiz was for a $50,000 Heart Prize, and arguably aviation itself, and also a grape drink. The trip was covered in newspapers across the country. Twenty-thousand people came out to see him land in Pasadena. Rogers was either an eager ambassador for flying or a showboat, and would pull stunts and even flew over a prison yard so prisoners could see what a plane looked like.

Solar Impulse is an ambassador for alternative sources of energy. This very 21st Century cause has a very 21st Century media campaign replete with a YouTube channel, a blog--the works!--and is soaking up adoration just like sunshine, everywhere it goes. While in New York, Borschberg and the other pilot, Bernard Piccard are going to the UN and ringing the NASDAQ opening bell.

Edge: Gotta give it to Solar Impulse. Both airborne publicity stunts are very “of their time,” but our/Solar Impulse’s time has way more media.

PILOT FASHION

Borschberg and Piccard, © Solar Impulse |Ackermann| Rezo.ch

The Solar Impulse pilots wore these really charming yellow scarves as an homage to the famous French aviator and author Antoine Saint-Exupery. Saint-Ex is mostly known for The Little Prince, but his book Wind Sand and Stars is a really beautiful and poetic account of his time flying through the Andes and around North Africa. So the Impulse pilots have a Continental-throwback flourish on top of their very dapper flight suits.

Flight suits, like cockpits, didn’t really exist in Rogers’s time so he flew across the country wearing a business suit under sweaters and a sheepskin vest all while chomping down on an unlit cigar.

Cal Rodgers, fashion icon. Note both the cigar and the bandage on his head. Via Foter San Diego Air and Space Museum Archives

Edge: It’s no contest. Cal Rogers pulled an OG move like the cigar, and there’s no topping that, no matter how Euro-cool you are.

Final Tally: 3-2 in favor of the Vin Fiz. Sorry, solar power.