Solar Impulse 2 flight ‘shows need to alter energy use’

Significant Irish contingent involved in first solar-powered round-the-world flight

A sizable Irish contingent greeted the Solar Impulse 2 in Abu Dhabi after it made history early on Tuesday by completing the first around-the-world flight to be powered solely by the sun.

Since its March 2015 take-off, the Swiss-engineered Solar Impulse 2 has made 16 stops across the world without using a drop of fuel to demonstrate that using the plane’s clean technologies on the ground can halve the world’s energy consumption, save natural resources and improve quality of life.

“Our mission now is to continue to motivate people, corporations and governments to use these same solutions on the ground wherever they make sense,” Solar Impulse chairman and pilot Bertrand Piccard, said in a statement before landing the plane in the United Arab Emirates.

His sentiments were echoed by a second generation Irish man involved in the project who was on the ground at Abu Dhabi to see the plane land.


"Solar Impulse didn't just do it for the fun they wanted to get a point across about energy use and the need to change the way we use energy," said Conor Lennon of Swedish-Swiss multinational ABB. It is one of a number of companies supporting the project, and has had a base in Ireland for the past 70 years.

Mr Lennon is ABB’s project manager for the flight, but until last year he was also a communications manager for the Solar Impulse project.

He was delighted to see Solar Impulse 2 finally complete its circumnavigation. “It was really strange. You are in the moment, but you have got a job to do,” he said. “It was about making every flight a little miracle.”

There were many such miracles during the past few years. Over its entire mission, Solar Impulse 2 completed more than 500 flight hours, cruising at an average speed of between 56km/h and 90 km/h. It made stops in Oman, India, Burma, China, Japan, the US, Spain, Italy, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Its North American stops included California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.

The pilots faced a nine-month delay a year ago after the plane’s batteries were damaged during a flight from Japan to Hawaii. It was also delayed for more than a week in Cairo ahead of its final flight to Abu Dhabi when Mr Piccard fell ill, and due to poor weather conditions.

Long days

The carbon-fibre plane is a single-seater aircraft, meaning its two Swiss pilots – Mr Piccard and André Borschberg – had to take turns flying solo for long days and nights. To calm their minds and manage fatigue during the long solo flights, Mr Borschberg practised yoga and Mr Piccard self-hypnosis.

The aircraft's wings were covered with solar cells, used to produce electricity to power four electric motors that turned the plane's propellers. Night flying was accomplished using batteries to bridge the hours of darkness.

The pilots would rest a maximum of 20 minutes at a time, repeating the naps 12 times over each 24-hour stretch.

It took 70 hours for Mr Piccard to cross the Atlantic Ocean, which was the first by a solar-powered plane.

Mr Borschberg’s flight over the Pacific Ocean at 118 hours – five days and five nights – shattered the record for the longest flight duration by an aircraft flying solo.

Neither pilot was able to stand in the cockpit while flying, but the seat reclined for stretching and its cushion could be removed for access to a toilet. Goggles worn over the pilot’s eyes flashed lights to wake him up while armbands placed underneath their suits buzzed when the plane was not at flying level.

Hundreds of people contributed to the project, committing long hours to help make the flight a success, Mr Lennon said.

“It was all consuming, it has pretty much taken over my life for the past five years. You have to give it your all because it is a project that relies on weather conditions and doesn’t respect holidays or birthdays or weekends,” he said.

“What is next? Everyone has been asking themselves that since last year,” Mr Lennon said.

“What will happen to the plane is unclear. In the short term the plane is safe in a hangar in Abu Dhabi and is still airworthy and could fly. Either it will be packed up and shipped to Switzerland or moved into a museum. I don’t know if they have decided.”

It would be “very tempting” to join another similar project he said when asked would he do it all again.

“There is something really compelling about this as it is the first time it has been done. You are really pushing boundaries. It excites people at a very high level. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was talking to the pilot while he was still in the cockpit,” Mr Lennon said.

Mr Lennon is from London but his parents were from Dublin and Belfast. Also at the landing were Wexford-born Frank Duggan a regional president with ABB and a member of the project’s group executive committee, and Eoin Caldwell, an ABB engineer based in Ireland and an imbedded member of Solar Impulse ground crew. He is from Limerick.

In a statement this week, Mr Borschberg said it was no longer a question of whether it was possible to fly without fuel or polluting emissions.

“By flying around the world thanks to renewable energy and clean technologies, we have demonstrated that we can now make our world more energy efficient,” he said.

Mr Piccard, a psychiatrist, is the son of undersea explorer Jacques Piccard and a grandson of balloonist Auguste Piccard. In 1999, he became the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a hot air balloon.

Mr Borschberg, an engineer and graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is also an entrepreneur. He launched the Solar Impulse project in 2003 with Mr Piccard.

The project is estimated to have cost more than €90 million. The UAE-based Masdar, the Abu Dhabi government's clean-energy company, was a main sponsor of the flight and there were more than 40 additional sponsors, including Omega, Belgian chemical company Solvay, ABB, Swiss manufacturer Schindler, Google and Moet Hennessy.

Additional reporting: PA

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.