Solar Impulse 2’s small pause in an epic journey

Solar Impulse 2’s flight into the history books has already expanded the limits of the possible

Solar Impulse 2 approaches Hawaii after a record setting flight across the Pacific. Jean Revillard / AP)
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Though Solar Impulse 2 has paused its remarkable goal of circumnavigating the globe using the energy of the sun, the magic of this grand adventure is set to continue. The plane, which set off from Abu Dhabi in March, has only temporarily halted its flight in order for engineers to conduct essential repairs on its batteries. These were damaged on the eighth – and longest – leg of the plane’s journey, from Japan to Hawaii.

Though it is grounded for the moment at Honolulu’s Kalaeloa airport, its operations team’s mood remains upbeat. The expectation, indeed the determination, is that come April 2016, Solar Impulse 2 will resume its record-breaking flight into the history books and expand the limits of the possible.

There are many reasons to believe that this will come to pass. Consider all that has already been achieved during the 17,826km traversed by the plane from the UAE to Hawaii, with stops en route in Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Japan.

One of the two Swiss pilots set a world record for the longest solo flight – 117 hours and 52 minutes – when he steered the plane 7,200km across the Pacific. That particular leg also set several other records – for manned solar planes and for un-refuelled vehicles. But it’s not just records. Solar Impulse 2 has accomplished something else that can’t really be quantified, what American writer Henry Miller once described as a new way of seeing things.

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, the project’s co-founder co-pilots (and co-dreamers) have consistently said that this, the world’s “first airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night without a drop of fuel” can demonstrate the possibilities of renewable energy.

It is unlikely that solar-powered flights will one day be as routine as the fossil-fuelled planes that now crowd our skies, but perhaps Solar Impulse 2’s experiences will help towards developing more efficient solar panels and more effective batteries that can be used in a range of other vehicles and devices. We can be certain that the trial and error process of this solar odyssey is contributing valuable practical pointers.

In some ways, Solar Impulse 2 may have also caused a ripple effect in terms of new and daring aviation attempts that use clean power. Just last week, two electric planes successfully crossed the English Channel. But all of these achievements are as nothing when one considers the epic journey’s ultimate glory: the reaffirmation of human endurance.