Today in Transportation History – 2016: The First Solar-Powered Circumnavigation of the Earth

More than 16 months after leaving Abu Dhabi, the experimental solar-powered monoplane Solar Impulse 2 completed its first-of-a-kind circumnavigation of Earth by returning to the capital city of the United Arab Emirates. The innovative aircraft had been one of two built as part of a privately financed aviation project in Switzerland. The Swiss citizens leading this project are psychiatrist and balloonist Bertrand Piccard, who co-piloted Breitling Orbiter 3 in 1993 when it became the first balloon to circle non-stop around the world; and engineer and businessman André Borschberg.

Solar Impulse 2, which carries the Swiss registration HB-SIB, was built with more solar cells and more powerful motors than its predecessor Solar Impulse 1 to help guarantee a round-the-globe flight. Solar Impulse 2 was first publicly displayed in April 2014 and underwent its inaugural test flight that June.

Piccard and Borschberg were the co-pilots for the circumnavigation flight of Solar Impulse 2.  When starting this flight at Al Kateen Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015, they planned to complete the journey in August of that year. This pioneering flight ultimately took place in 17 stages altogether, with stops made en route at various locations in Oman, India, Myanmar, China, Japan, the United States, Spain, and Egypt. A mission control center for the flight was set up in Monaco, with satellites used to monitor the whereabouts of Solar Impulse 2 and to stay in regular contact with Piccard and Borschberg.

Piccard and Borschberg were on track to meet their original timeframe for returning to Abu Dhabi when, during the longest non-stop stretch of the flight between Japan and Hawaii in June 2015, the aircraft’s batteries experienced significant thermal damage. This complication resulted in a major delay in Hawaii, with the U.S. Department of Transportation housing Solar Impulse 2 in a hangar at Kalaeloa Airport on the island of Oahu while Piccard and Borschberg waited for the shipment of needed replacement parts. After those parts arrived and the repairs were made – and also following a series of test flights and the onset of more favorable weather conditions for travel – Piccard and Borschberg resumed their journey in April 2016. The completion of the flight just over three months later marked the first circumnavigation of the world by a piloted fixed-wing aircraft relying exclusively on solar power.

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