Solar Impulse waits out bad weather in Nagoya

AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

The pilot of the sun-powered Solar Impulse 2 airplane said it was a “great pleasure” to be in Japan after making an unscheduled pit stop at Nagoya Airport toward midnight Monday, and pledged to continue his record-breaking voyage to Hawaii as soon as the weather clears.

Swiss aviator Andre Borschberg, who lived in Japan 30 years ago, arrived from Nanjing, China, after notching up the aircraft’s longest nonstop flight to date, lasting one day and one night. He opted to divert to Nagoya to wait out a difficult weather front he would otherwise have to cross on the way to Hawaii.

“Fighting against the clock. Waiting to build the mobile hangar to protect @solarimpulse against bad weather,” he tweeted Tuesday afternoon as a support crew worked to erect a giant inflatable tent brought in on a separate flight.

“We are working on the mobile hangar and it should be erected this evening,” spokeswoman Elke Neumann told The Japan Times.

The inflatable hangar is assembled in sections to cover the plane and protect its lightweight, 72-meter wings from wind and rain damage. A reflective material was draped over its cockpit and solar cells while the tent was being built.

Solar Impulse 2 was trying to fly continuously from Nanjing to Hawaii, and planners had expected the 8,500-km distance to take six days and six nights nonstop, with onboard batteries charging up during the day.

But a developing cold front in the Pacific Ocean that forecasters said Borschberg would encounter as he neared Hawaii made the crossing risky, mission controllers decided, ordering the pilot to divert to Japan instead.

At an impromptu news conference around an hour after he touched down, Borschberg told reporters that the diversion was no problem for the success of the mission.

“I would say it has no impact,” he said.

Curious locals gathered in a park near the airport Tuesday, hoping to get a glimpse of the record-breaking plane, which has 17,000 solar cells and weighs just 2,300 kg.

LEDs that festoon the huge wingspan gave the plane an ethereal look as it glided in to land Monday night, turning multiple times over Nagoya, and at least one taxi driver commented that it looked like a UFO.

The landing was live-streamed on the project’s website, with viewers treated to scenes of jubilation and relief from the Monaco mission control room as the plane touched down.

Despite having been cut short by several days, the flight from China notched up at least one first — Solar Impulse 2 managed for the first time to fly day and night powered only by sunshine.

The round-the-world attempt began in Abu Dhabi in March and was originally intended to be completed in 12 legs, with a total flight time of around 25 days.

It was not supposed to include a stop in Japan, but, as the last bit of land before the vast stretch of the open Pacific, it had always been a possible backup destination.

The mission’s well-oiled PR operation wasted no time, posting messages on their Twitter feed in Japanese, thanking the nation for its support.

The plane is the successor to Solar Impulse, which managed a 26-hour flight in 2010, proving its ability to store enough power in lithium batteries during the day to keep flying at night.

Ridiculed by the aviation industry when it was first unveiled, the venture has since been hailed around the world.