Flying on the Sun

First, man-kind was bedazzled to walk on the moon. Now, we could be flying on the sun; on the sun’s energy, that is. Think I’m crazy? Well, let me explain:

It simply does not make reasonable business sense, physics sense, or otherwise, to try and fly an airplane on solar power.

Not yet, anyhow.

With the state of technology, and given how relatively young the solar sector is – such an endeavor would be considered impracticable by today’s standards – forget 2003, when Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the co-founders of technology firm Solar Impulse, announced that they would be designing a solar-powered aircraft to fly around the world.

It would be a statement about global dependence on fossil fuels and the untapped promise of blossoming green technologies. The Swiss pilot-entrepreneurs were on a dream of “perpetual flight”: a plane that could climb to 9,000 feet and fly on the sun’s energy by day, while descending below cloud cover to lower altitudes, where it would cruise on its stored battery power by night.

A long shot to say the least. Well, seven years of interesting innovation later, the 70-person team at Solar Impulse is nearing its goal:

Borschberg said:

“We were intrigued by this notion of perpetual flight…we wanted to be totally independent of any fuel…forget hybrid planes, or the biofuels fixating most of the sustainable aviation sector today; Piccard and Borschberg are purists. No fuel, no CO2, no pollution. It could fly almost forever, assuming good weather…”

By November of last year, test pilot Markus Scherdel, formerly of DLR German Aerospace, the NASA of Germany, if yo will, was climbing into the cockpit of the completed prototype to taxi down the Dübendorf runway for the very first time. And soon after that, Scherde was back in the cockpit, this time guiding the plane as it shot up into the air for a series of successful “flea-hop” mini-flights over the tarmac.