I don’t think I’ll ever look up again when I hear a plane overhead.
The finest flights, like a bird’s, are now soundless to me. The drone of internal combustion engines is no longer state of the art for aviation. By powering human flight, a new kind of energy has demonstrated its immense potential for human enrichment. Earth’s technological mix will never be the same.
10:41 p.m. Friday. We stand outside at the guard rail just past the passenger entrance to the Lehigh Valley International Airport in eastern Pennsylvania. Several other cars have pulled up there. All of us peer intently at the runway, trying to make sense of a bracelet of lights in the darkness.
Suddenly my companion exclaims, “I see it! There’s the tail!”
The two of us from CleanTechnica have beheld this object before, poised at attention in its impossibly wide hangar, only the cockpit and fuselage illuminated. Then, press liaison Victoire Margairez guided us over to meet inventor and co-pilot Bertrand Piccard. After warm handshakes, Piccard spoke briefly and answered our questions as we stood with him near the front of the plane.
Piccard told us about zero-fuel flight:
“The future of transportation involves new lightweight materials. The future of world energy is electric. This type of power is 97% efficient, versus 30% for fossil fuel. We don’t have to be ‘ecological’ any more. Just logical.”
“When you hear people tell you it’s impossible… I tell my team every week at meetings to do the tasks they can do and to learn to accept failure. To believe that anything is feasible. The impossible first becomes possible, then it becomes obvious…. Trying until you find the right strategy is more important than standing still.”
The other pilot, co-founder, and CEO, André Borschberg, underlined Bertrand’s sentiments when I interviewed him over the phone on Thursday.
“We must use these new clean technologies for the long-term benefits of humankind. Traditional corporations are prisoners of their business model. The doubters say ‘Solar energy is great, but what happens when the sun goes down?’ This plane will take off and go on in the dark, endlessly.”
When the sun goes down, the plane still flies, enabled by batteries. Andre likens the replacement of fossil fuels by clean energy technology to the disappearance of silver-based photographic film as soon as digital technology became available.
So yesterday—just one week after Mickey and I first met Solar Impulse and Bertrand Piccard—and after the team had to scrub an earlier attempt because of suddenly worsened weather, the ground crew has wheeled Solar Impulse out onto the end of the runway. This highly symbolic journey, conceived to fly around the Statue of Liberty and above the skyline of Manhattan, is part of the attempt to achieve the first ever Round-The-World Solar Flight.
Thanks to 10 live cameras in the cockpit, on the wings, in the Mission Control Center, and on the ground, everyone logged onto the Si2 website can virtually accompany the pilot and the team. André Borschberg, who will fly this leg of the journey, sits in the single seat, from which he looks out over Solar Impulse’s tarmac path to virtually endless freedom in the darkening sky. The wind is negligible, as are the clouds. Everyone knows that this night is go for the flight.
Unlike the pilot, Solar Impulse can stay up there indefinitely. Without landing, it could complete many other world circumnavigations using zero liquid or solid fuel. Electricity poured down from the sun powers its batteries, which propel two propellor engines on each wing to keep the plane in the air and on its flight path.
After the 11:12 Delta flight from Atlanta lands safely and parks, our delicate dragonfly, over 15 lcd lights on its wings, takes off surprisingly fast. No roar of jets. You have to be watching the bead of lights, and not listening, to see this aircraft take off. Into the west, a wide turn to the east, passing us down at the airport… off to New York on the final leg of its US journey.
WATCH THE LEHIGH VALLEY TAKEOFF VIDEO HERE.
We keep track of Solar Impulse from the car as Mickey drives away. My MacBook plays André’s chatter with air traffic control live as the plane soars out of sight. Mickey asks me one question:
“To New York?”
I pause, then say “Yes.”
to be continued….