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Soaring With The Sun: History Of Solar Flight

Recent news about the Solar Impulse and its successful landing journey to Hawaii have many renewable energy champions singing the praises of solar flight, even after learning the plane will have to remain in Hawaii until 2016 while overheated batteries are replaced.

Solar Impulse pilots

After landing in Hawaii, the Solar Impulse team of Bertrand Piccard and Andre’ Borschberg will resume their flight in 2016 after replacing overheated batteries.

I consider myself very fortunate to have worked with John Perlin, a physics professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and one of the few individuals who can trace the remarkable history of solar flight over the decades.

Mr. Perlin author of the book about long history of solar power’s long history, “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy,”  was present at many of these pioneering endeavors (manned and unmanned) and met pioneers like Paul MacCready (Impulse) and Robert Bosch (Bosch Solar Energy).

MacCready’s Gossamer Condor made history in 1977 when it flew a figure-eight course over a distance of 1.15 miles and became the first human-powered vehicle to achieve sustained, maneuverable flight.

Based on his book, Perlin and I produced a 14-part CleanTechnica miniseries chronicling the development of solar photovoltaics that ran in conjunction with the UN’s 2015 International Year of Light.

For those missing info on this miniseries, here are previously published episodes:

  1. Author John Perlin Celebrates the Coming Year of Light
  2. Author John Perlin & the Solar Cell
  3. The Pathway to Today’s Solar Revolution: Discovering the Photosensitivity of Selenium 
  4. Photovoltaics Discovered in 1875: Interview with Author John Perlin
  5. Photovoltaic Dreaming: First Attempts at Commercializing PV
  6. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics Part 1 
  7. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 2 
  8. John Perlin Miniseries #8: Photovoltaics: Saved by Silicon – Part 1
  9. Photovoltaics Miniseries #9: Saved by Silicon – Part 2 
  10. Photovoltaics Miniseries #10: World’s First Practical Solar Cell Victim to Exigencies of Cold War
  11. Photovoltaics Miniseries #11: Nixon’s Solargate
  12. Photovoltaics Miniseries #12: Jimmy Carter’s War Against PV 
  13. John Perlin’s Photovoltaics Miniseries #13: Reagan Nukes Solar 
  14. John Perlin PV Miniseries #14: How Public Policy Matters

A physicist and teacher, Perlin has long been a proponent or solar energy. This series on solar flight seems like a perfect fit.

He wrote to me recalling his first encounter with the dreamers who believed in the idea of solar flight: “Sixteen years ago I headed out to Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert to cover the launch of the solar-powered aircraft, the Helios. The night of my arrival I went to a party celebrating next day’s launch. There I heard talk of a man – Paul MacCready – who realized in the late 1970s da Vinci’s dream of human-powered light. They also spoke of his Pterodactyl – a remote-controlled reconstruction of that ancient huge flying reptile soaring over the Mojave in the mid-1980s. And tomorrow we would see if his solar-powered winged aircraft would fly.”

I look forward to providing this report.

Image and video via Solar Impulse

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Written By

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.


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