Now and then giant ocean creatures wash up on beaches in a horrible mess. At Kalaeloa Airport on Oahu (Hawaii) a similar but aerial creature has washed up in an airport hangar. It’s the Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered plane with a wingspan nearly as long as an Airbus A380’s. But it weighs rather less than a Toyota Land Cruiser and has so far cost its sponsors about $US250 million.
It was meant to fly around the world – without using a drop of fossil fuel – from March to August last year. Cheering it on were bigwigs Prince Albert 11 of Monaco, ex-UN czar Kofi Annan, Virgin’s Richard Branson, the ubiquitous Mikhail Gorbachev and the IPCC’s figurehead Christiana Figueres.
Among the plane’s partners are champagne people Moet Hennessy, who supplied refreshments at each stop ‘to promote their common values’ with ‘beautiful occasions’.
Departing Abu Dhabi, Solar Impulse 2 got half-way in 200 days, but it’s going nowhere until at least April. That’s because its solar batteries overheated during a wrong flight pattern and have to be replaced.
The fuel-free plane was meant to show the delicious potential of clean solar energy, ‘therapy for the planet’ and a climate-change stopper, as its founders balloonist Bertrand Piccard and ex-Swiss air force man Andre Borschberg see it. The solar plane’s actually demonstrated the superiority of a few drums of avgas.
Its 17,200 solar cells generate 17 horsepower for each of the four props – less than half the grunt of my four-cylinder Camry. It can lift only one person – the pilot. (Freight? Zero, not counting all the ‘messages’ and ‘positive emotions’). The pilot can last about five days and nights in the air, taking catnaps and using his seat as a potty-chair. Strangely, the Wright Flyer 111 in 1908 carried a passenger.
The solar plane is at the mercy of sun and breezes. It was held up at Nagoya for a month waiting for favorable winds, much like a 17th century galleon.
But there’s more. To keep this gossamer confection airborne, an Ilyushin 76 strategic airlifter flies ahead with a blow-up hangar and all the high-tech servicing gear. Aviation buffs call the airlifter a ‘bad-ass’, not just because of its ugly nose and four droopy jets, but because its takeoffs are real Russian screamers. Once aloft, it burns eight tons of CO2-spewing avgas per hour.
This behemoth is accompanied by a twin-turboprop ATR72 which can carry a support crew of up to 60, apart from the dozens left at Monaco mission control. The ATR burns a more modest tonne of fuel per 90 minutes.
With these two little helpers, the solar plane flies (half) around the world ‘without using a drop of fuel’. Piccard says, ‘What we have here is the future’.
Well maybe. This futuristic plane cruises at about the top speed of a postie’s bike, but can sometimes accelerate away to 90km/h.
Charitably assuming the plane does make it round the world in 18 months, that compares with other round-the-worlders such as:
- The Graf Zeppelin in 21 days in 1929.
- Wiley Post in his Winnie Mae, in nine days in 1933
- The Rutan Voyager, non-stop non-refuelled in nine days in 1986
- Bertrand Piccard and Brian Jones by balloon in 20 days in 1999.
- Solo yachter Francis Joyon, in 58 days in 2008, using that other clean fuel, wind.
- Someone could walk the plane’s route (somehow) in two years, not much longer than the flight time.
Piccard, who partakes of green delusionism, has summed up the venture: ‘Protecting the environment should not be perceived as expensive… Fighting climate change is opening-up new industrial markets and offering an opportunity for economic development, job creation and profit.’
I can picture a fourth-world peasant looking up from his hoe and saying, ‘Kids, that’s a quarter-billion investment whirring along up there using clean energy. And it’s worth it!’