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Solar Impulse 2: The Risks

Solar Impulse 2 is not fragile, just vulnerable. It’s translucent with fabric stretched tightly over ribs, just like early aircraft of the 20th century.
Solar Impulse 2: The Risks
Solar Impulse 2
Solar Impulse 2 waits inside the mobile hangar in Dayton, Ohio. Note the instrument boom, folded back over the nose. Hand-cranked by the pilot during flight, it transmits windspeed and weather data to mission control in Monaco. Photo Credit: Seabright McCabe

By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor

My hand was a hair’s width from touching the fuselage of Solar Impulse 2, the completely solar-powered aircraft flying around the world. “You wouldn’t touch the Mona Lisa if you were that close, would you?” my brain yelled to itself. I pulled my hand back.

I look up, and under the wing. It’s translucent, a doped fabric stretched tightly over ribs, just as early aircraft of the 20th century were. Only stronger, tighter. “The engineers tap on the fabric to make sure the tension is right,” Paige said.

Like vintage wood and wire aircraft, this plane is not fragile, just vulnerable. “There’s no way to safely land this in water, is there?” I said, thinking of the long flight over the Atlantic to come.

Paige shook her head. Even with the best materials, we all know that an O-ring can fail, a tile can be knocked away — we know how dangerous pioneering can be.

In fact, the day after our visit, the hangar had a near disaster, right on the ground. There was a cabinet failure — and the giant hangar began to deflate, its fabric ceiling beginning to settle on the wings. Only a split-second decision to reboot the generators restarted the fans and saved the wings from damage that would have cost the team months, and possibly ended its mission.

Solar Impulse 2
Paige Kassalen explains the specs of the electric bikes to SWE editorial and publications director Anne Perusek. Photo Credit: Seabright McCabe

A good reminder that no trailblazing adventure is ever a hundred percent safe.

But on that day — no worries. We checked out the prototype electric bikes up close, studied the instrument boom on the aircraft’s nose, marveled that the landing gear is cranked up by hand (200 turns by the pilot) to save the weight of hydraulics and a control system. Chatted with other members of the international crew.

“Thanks, Paige!” We had to collect ourselves back at the car before setting out. It takes a minute to let an experience like this settle before you get behind the wheel again. Never know when a wrong turn might send you to Toledo instead of back home.

Many thanks to Paige Kassalen, the crew, and the Solar Impulse team for their time, and our SWE Magazine exclusive! Check back for the final installment of this blog, on the future of aviation. It’s more amazing than you think!