“The ‘landing’ in my heart I bore, long after it was heard/seen no more”. Borrowed lines from the ‘Solitary Reaper’ came to my mind as hundreds of thousands witnessed the epic landing of the Solar Impulse plane at Hawaii on Friday evening(IST). Indeed, a sight to behold, a specially designed plane, powered by solar energy alone; Solar Impuse 2 was on a transoceanic flight over the Pacific ocean from Nagoya in Japan to Hawaii in the US. It would be for the first time that the solar plane would travel 4000 miles nonstop.
Why “epic”? It was not the intention of Solar Impulse team to beat any previous records although it did break the earlier record set by Steve Fossett in 2006 of 76 hours 45 minutes way beyond expectation for staying in air for the longest time man has ever ventured, i.e., 4 days 22 hours and 1 minute.
An idea was born in Payerne, Switzerland in 2003 when ANDRE BORSCHBERG, an engineer by education and graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in management science, a trained fighter pilot and professional airplane pilot and BERTRAND PICCARD, the doctor, psychiatrist and explorer who made the first ever non-stop round-the-world balloon flight got thinking. Why not a solar powered plane to highlight the harmful effects of fossil fuels and Co2 emissions. The impossibility of achieving such a feat was stressed on by most they came in contact with but the solar brothers believed they could do it:
होंगे कामयाब होंगे कामयाब
हम होंगे कामयाब एक दिन
मन मे है विश्वास पुरा है विश्वास
हम होंगे कामयाब एक दिन
Their partnership has come a long way and bonds are growing stronger as the #RTW trip continues.
Solar Impulse 2:
Design: This revolutionary single-seater aircraft made of carbon fiber has a 72 meter wingspan (larger than that of the Boeing 747-8I) for a weight of just 2,300 Kg, equivalent to that of a car. The 17,000 solar cells built into the wing supply four electric motors (17.5 CV each) with renewable energy. During the day, the solar cells recharge lithium batteries weighing 633 Kg which allow the aircraft to fly at night. Because of its design, maneuvering requires more skill than the conventional aircraft. They say the engineering faults if any will only be detected when the plane is tested under actual conditions, remember the plane was in air for nearly 5 long days. There was a minor glitch and the batteries were not charging to their full potential because of overheating. Peter Frei, Head of Conceptual Design and Aerodynamics at Solar Impulse says he has already come up with the changes necessary to the battery insulation before the next flight happens within a fortnight.
Functionality and observations: During the flight, the plane touched altitudes up to 30000 ft to harness max energy from the sun during the solar day, and the slow descent to about 8000 ft. The plane would glide throughout the solar night in better temperatures until dawn broke and the climb began again. At altitudes of 30000 ft and above the temperatures were at -2 degrees C to – 4 degrees C , we saw Andre in heavy insulation gear, like the ones worn by mountain climbers with oxygen masks. Blood and oxygen levels were continuously being monitored by the team. This was when I started watching the proceedings live, the interactions between the team and the pilot until the landing at Hawaii on the fourth day. At one point there was something wrong with the oxygen mask worn by Andre and several calls had to be made by the team monitoring him coaxing him to replace the mask.
Andre says on this experience that it was like climbing a mountain four times over.
Pilot’s personal care; Andre Borschberg’s eating, breathing, hygiene, toiletting, napping times were closely monitored. Being the pilot of a plane needs certain drastic adjustments to be made to once basic needs whilst flying in midair. The yoga and breathing exercises kept his body and mental faculties functioning fairly well under extremely trying conditions. There were planned 20 minute naps when the weather was favourable and auto piloting could be turned on. There was a time when he was jolted out of his sleep when the mission control noticed a snag in the system. No proper mealtimes, he would pop in science-based nutritional requirements now and then to keep him going. No privacy, throughout the flight the cameras kept rolling 24 hours for the public and for monitoring purposes.
After the third day extreme fatigue was experienced by him. The crossing of the second and last cold front across the Pacific ocean was challenging as the team continued to hold and monitor weather conditions diligently. He looked tired as we observed him live, slightly disoriented, especially had a hard time to allow the plane to glide and position it. It looked like he was going way off route, at this crucial moment Bertrand Piccard spoke to him in French in a soothing voice. He was there to monitor and control the progress of the plane backed by an excellent ground team stationed at Monaco. There were many moments like this when the pilot and team were tested to their extreme limits interspersed with exchange of light banter and laughter between Andre and the team.
Solar Impulse 2 skipped from continent to continent, crossing both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
When he was approaching Hawaii, it was decided that he would land only early morning hours the following day when he would be able to manoeuvre the plane better, long hours were spent gliding in midair, having his 20-minute naps to get over the fatigue he was experiencing and to achieve favourable wind speeds whilst landing. It is said landing and takeoff requires the pilot to have his wits around him and he was at his best during the early hours. The sun had set, the batteries were being discharged, and once he was rested enough, only then did he begin the perfect descent to Hawaii and landed about 6:02 a.m. on July 3, 2015, amidst clapping and jubilation by mission control team, the families and well wishers present with congratulatory messages kept pouring in live from all parts of the globe; history was made.
To have watched the landing of this uniquely beautiful plane was indeed a delight and I am lucky to have witnessed this. The next stop in #RTW is to be announced later. Wish the mission control team, Andre Boscherberg and Bertrand Piccard all the best. You make a great team.
What do we have to take with us from this spectacular solar impulse gesture? The message is clear; alternative, environment friendly sources of energy is the only way forward to save our planet and its inhabitants.
Malika Ahmad is a space enthusiast and a votary of alternative source of energy. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org