Saturday, April 18, 2009

Around the World Non-Stop Solar-Powered Flight: Mere Wishful Thinking?

Even though plans for the endeavor were already published more than 3 years ago, can anyone really fly a plane solo around the world non-stop via a solar-powered plane?

By: Ringo Bones

Back in April 6, 2009, a number of press coverage on Bertrand Piccard’s plan to fly non-stop around the world solo via a solar-powered plane – which he plans to do this year, if possible – gained the attention of every aviation enthusiasts around the world. Bertrand Piccard first gained worldwide fame in the field of aviation when he – together with Brian Jones - successfully circumnavigated the globe via a balloon named the Breitling Orbiter back in March 1999.

Even though Piccard’s plan to circumnavigate the globe yet again – hopefully this year – via a solar-powered airplane was already revealed almost 4 years ago in the September 2005 issue of Popular Mechanics. The solar-powered plane, named the Solar Impulse, was “hopefully” designed to allow Piccard to successfully fly non-stop around the world. The Solar Impulse was designed to have an ideal cruising altitude of 8,500 meters and will fly within a pre-approved airspace because this experimental solar-powered craft will not be equipped with an auto-pilot.

While the Solar Impulse’s solar panels are modeled after the NASA’s Helios unmanned solar-powered aircraft. The plane’s advanced next-generation high-capacity storage batteries is the next-generation version of that being fitted on NASA’s Helios. It will not only allow the Solar Impulse to have enough power to fly at night or overcast days, but also have enough power to carry a single human passenger.

The flightsuit that Bertrand Piccard will use in this endeavor will also be a technological tour-de-force because it will be filled with various sensors that will monitor his physiological condition. Not to mention the vibration points which functions like a mobile phone’s incoming call vibrate ringtone function that allows Piccard feedback of the plane’s current condition. According to the flightsuit’s design parameters, Piccard could fly the plane even while semi-awake.

The solar-powered circumnavigation flight’s preparations include Piccard undergoing a 25-hour long virtual reality simulation flight of the Solar Impulse’s cockpit. Though it is estimated that the actual duration of this solar-powered circumnavigation flight could be as long as 36 hours. If successful, Bertrand Piccard could yet add another firsts on his aviation exploits. Or if the current geopolitical situation worsens that the Solar Impulse’s reserved airspace becomes a veritable war zone, then the Solar Impulse could yet become another XB-70 Valkyrie. An elegantly designed aircraft unable to fulfill it’s intended purpose.

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