It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s…Actually A Plane!

On July 7, 2013 the Human Impacts Institute crew had the exciting opportunity to see a technological marvel first hand at a special event highlighting the solar-powered airplane, which embarked a journey from San Francisco, California to New York City where John F. Kennedy International Airport welcomed the plane to its final destination. HII also shared the opportunity with students participating with our partner Global Kids, a non-profit educational organization that empowers urban youth to have the skills needed to participate in our global environment.

At this event, hosted by Solar Impulse, the developers of the technological marvel, and The Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation, guests had the opportunity to learn more about the plane’s development, journey and significance from the crew first hand.

The plans for a solar-powered plane began in 2003 when pilot Bertrand Piccard presented the idea and then partnered with Solar Impulse’s second pilot, André Borschberg. The project evolved and in 2010 Solar Impulse was the first to fly a plane night and day for 26 hours solely by solar power. The plane which flew across the United States is the HB-SIA prototype which features the wingspan of a jumbo jet, the weight of a small car and room for one (the pilot). Many aspects of traditional airplanes have been redesigned for this plane including used materials, degree of its aerodynamics and ability to prevail against high altitudes.


The 2013 journey was the first time a solar plane flew across the United States which made for an emotional adventure. Each time a destination was reached, the pilots, who switched off between cities, were overwhelmed at what they had just accomplished. One member of the Solar Impulse team described the success of the trans-America flight as a dream, a dream that is a miracle as “miracle[s] link to hope, courage and responsibility. These keywords are linked to the solar impulse adventure. So this is more than a dream. It is a miracle.”

The significance of this miracle is twofold: first in terms of what it means for technology, and second for what that technology indicates for the future of consumerism and energy use.

The solar silicon cells covering the plane are incredibly light and thin. Although they are not the most powerful, their weight is ideal for the energy efficiency of the plane. The plane used no fuel and charges as it operates, meaning the more the plane flies, the more energy it generates. In fact, the plane made multiple stops in part to help the pilot refuel, not the plane.

The pilots compared the state of the planes technology to the first planes invented in the early 1900s. It will take a good amount of time to reach the production of commercial solar powered planes but it is the springboard of development. However, this technology is still applicable to current consumer use by applying it to homes, cars and other forms of ground transportation.


This airplane also impacts the way people perceive the energy and climate conversation. The plane inspired awe in every city it reached and sparked the idea that an evolution in our energy future is possible.

By Ani Esenyan, Environmental Services Intern

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