Solar-powered plane in Bay Area preparing for cross-country flight


No one is sure if or when we'll ever see solar-powered commercial planes, but two men want to prove it's possible to fly without fuel.

It has the wing span of a 747 jetliner, yet it weighs only about the same as a mid-sized sedan. And it's the dreamliner of two Swiss men who want to take energy conservation and sustainability aloft.

"You can dream, and it comes true as long as you manage to get out of the certitudes, as long as you can get pioneering spirit," Solar Impulse Chairman and pilot Bertrand Piccard said.

The Solar Impulse has come to Hangar 2 at Moffett Field for a cross-country flight solely powered by the sun. It has already set five world records for solar-powered flight. It has been airborne as long as 26 hours. Integrated into its wings are 12,000 solar cells made by San Jose-based SunPower.

"They take just the solar cell, and they solder them together on the wing of the plane," SunPower CEO Tom Werner said. "They're using just this, not in glass, just the silicon, and the thickness of this is incredibly thin. Very lightweight."

Solar Impulse will leave Moffett Field on May 1, weather permitting, flying to Phoenix, then Dallas. At that point, it will go to Atlanta or Nashville or St. Louis on its way to Washington D.C. and New York City over a time period of about two months.

The cockpit accommodates only one pilot. Bad weather poses the greatest risk.

"We have a simulation model which makes the airplane fly in advance in this weather so we know always a few hours, even a few days in advance where this airplane could be in the future," pilot Andre Borschberg said. "So with this method, we reduce the risk."

The plane incorporates new materials and technology that, like the space program, will benefit everyone.

"We are testing them in the air, and then it's available for everybody to be more energy efficient, reduce fuel consumption, and be cleaner," Piccard said.

Solar Impulse will be doing a number of test flights over the Bay Area during April. This will be an important step toward an around-the-world flight set for 2015. That will require staying airborne for five days and nights at a time.

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