Aviation is about to get its next Charles Lindbergh moment


© Solar Impulse / Jean Revillard

In early May, two solar aviation pioneers at Solar Impulse are going to attempt what has never been done before — a coast-to-coast flight across America, from San Francisco to Washington (and then on to New York), powered only by sunlight.

They will not expend an ounce of fuel during the entire journey, and will be able to fly at both day and night, when the disappearing sun will effectively turn the one-seat plane covered with 12,000 solar cells into a subzero refrigerator. The epic journey – which the two co-founders and pilots of Solar Impulse (Solar Impulse CEO Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg) are calling Mission 2013: Across America – could help to usher in a new era of aviation powered by renewable energy sources, much as Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated non-stop, solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris spurred the launch of the era of modern commercial aviation.


The pilots of HB-SIA Bertrand PIccard (left) and Andre Borschberg. © Solar Impulse / Jean Revillard

It is all the more remarkable that Across America is just the latest step in the march toward the ultimate goal – an around-the-world solar-powered flight in 20 days and 20 nights, scheduled for 2015. Along the way, the Solar Impulse team has racked up an impressive number of firsts – the first day-and-night flight for a solar-powered plane, the first European flight in a solar-powered plane and the first intercontinental trip (Europe to Africa) in a solar-powered plane. And they’re doing it all in an incredibly light airplane that weighs less than an SUV but has the massive wingspan of a jumbo jet.

Across America is reminiscent of the earliest days of flight aviation, when events like Kitty Hawk and Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic stirred the popular imagination. To see a solar-powered craft glide over the Golden Gate Bridge is to understand what the first aviation pioneers felt when they learned that humans could, indeed, fly. Just as Lindbergh went from a relatively unknown aviation pilot for the U.S. Air Mail to one of the biggest celebrities of his era, the same could be true for the modern-day version of Charles Lindbergh. Piccard, building on the exploration legacy created by his father and grandfather, already has made a name for himself by becoming, along with Brian Jones, the first person to travel around the world by hot air balloon non-stop. (That balloon is now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington.)

Yet, as with any potentially disruptive technology, there are the skeptics. Even though the Solar Impulse team has proved that it’s capable of making day-and-night flights, any solar-powered plane is still highly susceptible to weather and wind conditions. Clouds, for example, pose a significant problem. And, by having room for just one passenger, the HB-SIA is not exactly a threat to the commercial airline majors anytime soon. With a max speed of less than 50 mph for the solar-powered plane, it’s theoretically possible that you could crisscross the country’s highways in your gas-guzzling SUV in a shorter time than it takes Solar Impulse to make the trip from San Francisco, Calif. to Washington, D.C.

But that’s missing the bigger point.

Aircraft powered by alternative energy sources—such as solar energy—are a classic type of disruptive innovation in that they appear only on the low-end before the benefits in price and performance push the innovation higher up the value chain. Increases in solar performance over time could lead to even larger airplanes carrying more passengers at faster speeds over longer distances. Eventually, you may be able to book a flight on a solar-powered commercial airline. And, as with any disruptive innovation, the entrenched incumbents will then be scrambling to come up with their own solutions—such as new bio-fuels that are cheaper to burn than traditional fossil fuels. The U.S. Air Force, for example, is already working on renewable energy solutions for its fleet of planes.


The sixth test flight from Moffett field for Solar Impulse. © Solar Impulse / Jean Revillard

In nearly every interview or press conference, Solar Impulse’s Bertrand Piccard uses the word “pioneer” or the term “pioneering spirit.” There’s a reason for that—it speaks to the type of courage and vision required for a cross-country mission of this magnitude. In a similar way, Charles Lindbergh named his plane the “Spirit of St. Louis” to showcase the spirit and resolve needed to accomplish such an audacious goal. Flying coast-to-coast across America using only the energy from the sun renews hope that the era of “perpetual flight” is around the corner—an era when expensive aviation fuel has been replaced by the cheap, plentiful fuel of the sun. If you look up at the Washington Monument as the Solar Impulse plane glides overhead, you might just glimpse the future of aviation.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations:

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Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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