By Ron Marsico, Media Relations Staff
Solar Impulse 2, bidding to be the first fuel-free aircraft to circle the globe, landed gracefully at 3:59 AM early Saturday morning at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a prelude to the final destination of Abu Dhabi.
Lumbering on approach with a low, steady hum and a necklace of lights on wings longer than those of a Boeing 747, Si2 was greeted with applause by more than 100 supporters, airport workers and reporters in JFK’s pre-dawn darkness. Approximately an hour earlier, the plane had circled the Statue of Liberty after beginning this leg of the journey from the Lehigh Valley in eastern Pennsylvania.
Pilot Andre Borschberg, 63, beamed as he emerged from the cramped cockpit, embracing fellow Si2 pilot Bertrand Piccard, 58, the legendary balloonist who flew the Swiss-built aircraft that some describe as a giant dragonfly on its prior leg from Ohio to Pennsylvania.
“With fuel, you have to land to refuel,” Piccard told reporters covering the landing, extolling the virtues of solar power. “Without fuel, you can fly forever.”
Looking and flying more like the Wright Brothers’ double-winged 12-horsepower glider than Chuck Yeager’s rocket-engine Bell X-1 that first broke the sound barrier, Si2 is nevertheless a state-of-the-art technological marvel. Its 236-foot wingspan, longer than its predecessor Solar Impulse I, boasts 17,248 solar cells that power four batteries and the propellers with green energy.
“This innovative aircraft is proving that continuous flight without fossil fuel is possible,’’ said Pat Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, which operates JFK. “A small step for man. A giant step for clean energy.”
The carbon-fiber, one-seat plane weighs only as much as an SUV and can fly around-the-clock on the sun’s energy, saving power during the day and using stored kilowatts in the batteries for night travel. But in an ode to Wilbur and Orville Wright – who had run a bicycle shop – Si2 needs assistance from a ground crew on mountain bikes to chase the plane as it lands, jump off and use their uplifted arms to keep the long floppy wingtips from scraping the ground.
Bicyclists in front of plane help to keep the wingtips aloft after Si2 lands.
Piccard, who gained fame for co-piloting the first non-stop, around-the-world balloon trip in March 1999, has said the idea for fuel-free flight came after he sweated out landing the balloon with just 40 kilos of liquid propane after starting with a whopping 3.7 tons.
“When I saw that (fuel level), I made a promise to myself,’’ recalled Piccard, speaking about the Solar Impulse project at a July 2009 conference at Oxford England. “I made the promise that the next time I fly around the world, it would be with no fuel – independent from fossil engines, in order to be safe, not to be threatened by the fuel gauge.’’
So began the combined high-tech, low-tech initiative to power a plane with green, renewable energy. While impractical for commercial flight in the foreseeable future, the pioneering Si2 team’s goal is to increase worldwide awareness of green energy in the aviation industry, with the hope of spurring advances that reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Solar Impulse I started the dream, with a trans-America journey in two months of hopscotch flights from outside San Francisco Airport to Kennedy Airport that ended in early July 2013. The larger Si2 subsequently was built for the around-the-world flight that began and was supposed to end in Abu Dhabi last year.
But the plane’s batteries were damaged by heat and insulation issues during a nail-biting five-day, five-night leg from Japan to Hawaii last year, forcing repairs that required the team to wait until this spring before resuming the odyssey.
Borschberg, whose turn it was to land at JFK in 2013 as well, praised the efforts of the Solar Impule team and sponsors, whose can-do optimism and technological innovation proved naysayers wrong.
“When we presented the project to the aviation industry, they told us, ‘It’s impossible,'” recalled Borschberg of the project’s infancy.
Si2’s pending departure in the coming days from JFK for the Trans-Atlantic leg also include a nod to Charles Lindbergh, who began his famous maiden flight across the Atlantic from nearby Roosevelt Field enroute to a hero’s welcome in Paris.
In a statement last year after picking Kennedy Airport for an Si2 landing, Piccard and Borschberg said nearly 90 years “after Charles Lindbergh’s flight that began near JFK, we look forward to attempt the crossing of the Atlantic with the solar-powered plane starting from this iconic airport.’’