The Solar Impulse 2, a solar powered plane, knocking down solo flight records much like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart did decades ago.

Solar Impulse 2, a solar-powered airplane that uses no fuel, is making a nearly 22,000-mile, around-the-world voyage. The journey began March 9, 2015, in Abu Dhabi and is scheduled to end there later this summer. The plane has endured many challenges, including being grounded in Hawaii for the entire winter due to a fried battery, ruined during a historic five-day flight from Japan to Hawaii last summer. Still, that flight set world records of distance and duration for solar aviation, as well as the world record for the longest solo flight ever. A look at the plane, the pilots and some comparisons to two other solo flights that made aviation history:

Solar Impuse 2

Solar cells and batteries
17,248 solar cells, the thickness of a human hair, cover the top of the horizontal stabilizer, fuselage and wings. The cells are protected by a thin layer of UV-resistant, waterproof resin, allowing them to be molded into curvatures of the surface. Energy from these cells gets directed into four high-voltage batteries. The Four high-voltage rechargeable lithium polymer batteries store energy produced by the solar cells. The stored energy allows the aircraft to fly at night. High-density light- weight insulation foam protects the batteries from cold temperatures, which could reduce their capacity. If one of the four motors should fail, battery power can be dispersed among the remaining functional motors.

Enduring long flights in the cockpit
The single pilot cockpit area is spacious enough for oxygen supplies, food and survival equipment, while meeting requirements for flights lasting several days. The absence of a heating/cooling system is offset by high-density thermal insulation that protects the pilot from the elements. The single seat can fully recline, allowing for physical exercises and more legroom during brief naps.

Comparing the planes
Technical advances, since the 1930s, paved the way for conveniences we experience on commercial airlines today. A look at some of the advantages and conditions these brave pilots endured in their effort to make history:

Ryan NYP “Spirit of St. Louis”
For pilot safety, the main fuel tank was incorporated between Charles Lindbergh and the engine. He used open side windows, a compass and periscope to navigate.

Lockheed Model 10 Electra
Amelia Earhart’s plane was customized with four auxiliary fuel tanks for greater range, a navigation system, autopilot, a radio and additional batteries.

Solar Impulse 2
Pilots Bertrand Piccard or André Borschberg must endure freezing temperatures at high altitudes in the single-seat plane, but have state-of-the-art equipment and skilled 
ground support at their fingertips.

A matter of altitude
Solar Impulse 2 pilots cruise at 27,000 feet, nearly the height of Mount Everest, in an unpressurized cabin. Temperatures in the cockpit can reach -4 degrees Fahrenheit, a problem neither Lindbergh nor Earhart had to contend with.

Flights that have broken records and aviation barriers
Though Solar Impuse 2 has already broken many records and remains only five stops from the team’s ultimate goal, pioneers before them inspired the nation decades earlier and laid the groundwork for future accomplishments in aeronautic research.

May 20-21, 1927
Charles Lindbergh completes the first solo flight across the Atlantic in Paris.

May 21, 1937
Amelia Earhart, with navagator Fred Noonan, leaves Oakland in an attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. Following takeoff from Lae, Papua New Guinea, Earhart’s plane vanished after losing radio contact with the Coast Guard cutter Itasca near Howland Island.

March 9, 2015
Pilot André Borschberg, in Solar Impulse 2, lifts off from  Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, beginning its historic journey around the world.

May 2016

Solar Impulse 2 is planning to leave Phoenx, Ariz., for Tulsa, Okla. before heading to New York City, where the plane and crew will be prepared for an Atlantic crossing.

The final stretch

The solar plane is currently expected to cross the Atlantic, making stops in Western Europe or Northern Africa as well as somewhere along the Mediterranean coast, before finishing back in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Sources ESRI, Solar Impulse.com, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, aviationhistory.com, stratusproject.com

Frank Pompa and Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY

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