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TV show reveals turmoil behind solar-powered flight

Solar Impulse pilots and plane
Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg shared the piloting duties on the single-seat Solar Impulse 2 airplane. (Niels Ackermann Photo / Rezo / Solar Impulse)

From the outside, it looked as if the Swiss-led Solar Impulse project smoothly soldiered through adversity as its solar-powered plane made a record-setting trip around the world in 2015 and 2016.

But the perspective was different when seen from the inside: The multimillion-dollar campaign nearly came crashing down when teammates debated whether to go ahead with a crucial Pacific crossing, even though the monitoring system for the autopilot wasn’t working right.

“The engineers were crying,” said Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer who served as Solar Impulse’s co-founder, chairman and one of its pilots. “They were begging me to stop.”

The turmoil as well as the technology behind the globe-girdling, fuel-free odyssey are on full display in “The Impossible Flight,” a two-hour NOVA documentary premiering on PBS tonight.

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Solar-powered plane finishes global circuit

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The Solar Impulse 2 plane heads toward its landing in Abu Dhabi. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

Solar Impulse’s history-making 22,000-mile flight around the world ended tonight with a solar-powered landing in the dark in Abu Dhabi, where it all began more than 16 months ago.

After two straight days of flying, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard aced the landing at Al Bateen Executive Airport just after 4 a.m. local time Tuesday (5 p.m. PT Monday), The touchdown marked the conclusion of the first-ever round-the-world journey completed by a solar-powered airplane.

“We made it!” Piccard told the cheering crowd on the runway just after landing.

Prince Albert of Monaco, one of Solar Impulse’s biggest backers, joined other dignitaries, scores of well-wishers and a bagpipe band at the finish-line celebration.

Piccard and Solar Impulse’s other pilot and co-founder, Andre Borschberg, organized the $170 million sponsor-funded effort to show off clean technologies – and potentially blaze a trail for fuel-free solar electric aviation.

“The future is clean. The future is you. The future is now. Let’s take it further,” Piccard told the crowd.

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Solar Impulse starts last flight of global odyssey

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The Solar Impulse plane rolls out of its Cairo hangar for its flight to Abu Dhabi. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

The Swiss-built Solar Impulse 2 airplane rose into the skies over Cairo, Egypt, tonight to finish off its 16-month, 22,000-mile, fuel-free journey around the world.

The 17th and final leg of the odyssey began at 1:29 a.m. Sunday local time (4:29 p.m. PT Saturday). If the itinerary proceeds according to plan, the solar-powered plane should arrive about 48 hours later in Abu Dhabi, where Solar Impulse started out in March of last year.

This last flight had to be postponed for a week because the winds were too strong, and because the pilot – Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard – wasn’t feeling well enough to take on the grueling flight. Tonight, Piccard said such setbacks just came with the territory.

“This is an adventure,” Piccard told reporters before takeoff at Cairo International Airport. “It’s not a business plan, it’s an adventure.”

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Solar Impulse gets its pyramid photo op in Egypt

Solar Impulse over pyramids
The Solar Impulse 2 airplane sails over Egypt’s Great Pyramids. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

After a photo op with the Great Pyramids, the Solar Impulse 2 airplane touched down in Egypt for the last layover in its 16-month, round-the-world odyssey.

Solar Impulse pilot and co-founder Andre Borschberg finished up his final turn at the controls with a sun-drenched landing at Cairo International Airport at 7:14 a.m. Wednesday (10:14 p.m. PT Tuesday), almost 49 hours after he took off from Seville in Spain.

“It’s fantastic to have this team, and to be able to do what we do with this spirit – it’s super,” Borschberg told the mission control team in Monaco via a cockpit radio connection.

Now it’s up to his fellow founder, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard, to close the 22,000-mile loop and pilot the solar-powered plane to Abu Dhabi, the place where the journey began in March 2015.

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Solar Impulse heads for final layover in Egypt

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The Solar Impulse 2 airplane takes off from Seville, Spain. (Credit: Solar Impulse)techn

Sixteen months after it started, the fuel-free Solar Impulse 2 airplane took off before dawn Monday for what’s expected to be the second-last leg of its round-the-world journey, heading from Spain to Egypt for a pyramid photo op and a Cairo landing.

Solar Impulse co-founder Andre Borschberg was at the controls in the solar-powered plane’s solo cockpit for what could be his last time during the globe-girdling odyssey.

“The unknown is always there,” he said before takeoff. “So I’m crossing my fingers before crossing the Mediterranean Sea.”

The ultra-lightweight plane rose up from Seville International Airport at 6:22 a.m. local time (9:22 p.m. PT Sunday). The Solar Impulse team said Borschberg’s trip is scheduled to take about 50 hours. He’s on track to cross through the airspace of seven countries during the flight.

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Solar Impulse crosses Atlantic to land in Spain

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Solar Impulse co-founders Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg salute the crowd after Piccard landed the Solar Impulse 2 airplane in Seville, Spain. (Credit: Zayed Energy Prize via Twitter)

The world’s most traveled fuel-free airplane, Solar Impulse 2, made better time than expected and landed in Spain today, leaving only 10 percent of its round-the-world odyssey to go.

“The Atlantic has always been the symbol of going from the Old World to the New World,” Solar Impulse co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard said after landing in Seville. “And everybody has tried to cross the Atlantic – with sailboats, steamboats, airships, airplanes, balloons, even rowboats and kitesurfs. Today, it’s a solar-powered airplane for the first time ever, flying electric, with no fuel and no pollution.”

Piccard was expected to take 90 hours to cross from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Seville, but he made the trip in only a little more than 71 hours.

“Only” is a relative term: A commercial airline flight from New York to Seville takes less than 11 hours, including a stopover in Madrid. But speed isn’t the point of Solar Impulse’s round-the-world odyssey. Rather, it’s sustainability.

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Solar Impulse begins four-day Atlantic crossing

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The Solar Impulse 2 airplane takes off from New York’s JFK Airport. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

The all-electric Solar Impulse 2 plane left America’s shores tonight and began what’s expected to be a 90-hour trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

This 3,600-mile leg of the solar-powered, round-the-world flight ranks as the longest single stretch since last summer’s Japan-to-Hawaii trip. During that earlier flight, Solar Impulse’s batteries overheated – forcing a months-long delay to make repairs and wait for the return of temperate weather.

The Swiss-led team says it has upgraded the batteries and added a cooling system to guard against a repeat. Nevertheless, this week’s over-ocean trip is likely to pose the biggest challenge left for the 15-month odyssey.

The fuel-free plane took off just after 2:30 a.m. ET Monday (11:30 p.m. PT Sunday) from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, with Solar Impulse co-founder Bertrand Piccard in the cockpit. His destination is Seville, which is near Spain’s Atlantic coast and the Strait of Gibraltar.

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Solar Impulse plane gets New York photo op

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The Solar Impulse 2 airplane flies high over the Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

The Solar Impulse 2 airplane finished up more than seven weeks of flying across America with an overnight hop to New York City that sets the stage for a climactic Atlantic crossing.

Solar Impulse co-founder and pilot Andre Borschberg took off from Lehigh Valley International Airport in Pennsylvania at 11:18 p.m. ET (8:18 p.m. PT) Friday. The timing was dictated by the weather as well as the logistics required to get the airplane through the East Coast’s normally crowded airspace during the middle of the night.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Lady Liberty,” Borschberg said after takeoff.

Borschberg required only a couple of hours to travel less than 100 miles from Lehigh Valley to New York, and then did a series of photo ops over New York landmarks.

The plane flew over the Statue of Liberty around 2 a.m. ET Saturday (11 p.m. PT Friday), and the plane landed at 3:59 a.m. ET (12:59 a.m. PT) at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

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Solar Impulse lands in PA, sets sights on NY

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The Solar Impulse 2 plane comes in for a landing at Lehigh Valley, Penn. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

One day after a close call, the Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world airplane made a 17-hour trip from Ohio to Pennsylvania today in preparation for its star turn in New York.

The gossamer craft floated down to Lehigh Valley International Airport just as night was falling, at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) with a crowd of well-wishers in attendance. Some of them flew the Swiss flag in honor of pilot Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer who co-founded Solar Impulse.

“There is an incredible traffic jam around the airport,” Piccard said from the plane’s solo cockpit just before landing. “It’s really fun. … It’s probably the nicest scenery I’ve had for landing.”

A 17-hour flight time from Dayton International Airport to Lehigh Valley would be classified as a nightmare if Piccard had been piloting a commercial jet. But it’s par for the course for Solar Impulse 2.

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Solar Impulse visits Wright Brothers’ hometown

Solar Impuse landing
Solar Impulse co-founder Bertrand Piccard holds up a model of the Wright Flyer as the Solar Impulse 2 airplane descends toward its landing in Dayton with its lights on. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

The Swiss-built Solar Impulse 2 airplane continued its fuel-free, round-the-world odyssey today with a nearly 17-hour flight from Oklahoma to Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers.

The solar-powered plane took off from Tulsa International Airport before sunrise at 4:23 a.m. CT (2:23 a.m. PT), and landed after dark at Dayton International Airport at 9:56 p.m. ET (6:56 p.m. PT).. In between, Solar Impulse 2 swept over a wide swath of America’s heartland, including Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.

After landing, pilot Andre Borschberg was met by two relatives of the Wright Brothers, great-grandnephew Stephen Wright and great-grandniece Amanda Wright Lane. They gave models of the Wright Flyer to Borschberg and Solar Impulse’s other co-founder, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard.

“It’s a dream to come here, and we made it,” Borschberg told the Wrights.

Piccard noted that Dayton served as the base for Orville and Wilbur Wright’s airplane-building operation more than a century ago. “People told the Wright Brothers, and us, what we wanted to achieve was impossible,” he said. “They were wrong.”

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