Solar Impulse 2 cut short its record attempt to fly nonstop from China to Hawaii and headed Monday for an unscheduled landing at Nagoya Airport. Its support team scrambled to fly equipment and personnel into Japan.
Bad weather set in over the Pacific as the solar-powered plane was more than a day into its planned six-day, six-night crossing that started in Nanjing.
Pilot Andre Borschberg broke the news on Twitter that he was diverting.
“On my way to nagoya disappointed for not continuing but very thankful to the Japanese authorities for their support,” Borschberg wrote in clipped English. He cited the value of persistence: “To try again is what you learn doing pioneering project.”
Late Monday afternoon, Solar Impulse 2 mission control in Monaco confirmed that the plane had gone into a holding pattern. A live track of its progress showed it at a medium altitude just off the Hokuriku coast.
Flight engineers spoke of satisfaction with the flight so far.
“It’s the longest flight ever of a solar airplane, going through the night, the longest duration, everyone in the team is really extremely happy with the behavior of the plane. It’s just the weather did not fit,” project co-founder Bertand Piccard said in a live webcast.
“So we land in Nagoya, we wait for better weather conditions and then we continue.”
Piccard said a weather front developed after the decision was taken to set off from Nanjing. “The window has closed, the front is too big, too thick. . . . The only safe decision is to stop in Nagoya and wait.
“Life is like this, and especially adventure is like this,” he added.
Mission director Raymond Clair said on the webcast that the team had prepared for an eventuality such as this, and had previously identified both Fukushima and Nagoya airports as possible sites for an unscheduled pit stop. The decision to choose between the two “was not easy because of the wind, we have a very strong west wind,” he said.
Project spokeswoman Elke Neumann paid tribute to the Japanese authorities for their flexibility. She said once the initial call for help had been translated and understood, everything fell into place.
She said the plane can only land at a lightly used airport, and could only land after dark, when the wind typically drops.
“It is very strong in the air, but it is fragile on the ground,” she said, adding that jets landing nearby could damage it. The wings need to be held in place until an inflatable tent is erected to protect the aircraft, she said.
This tent was on its way with additional technicians from Nanjing, Neumann said. She added that the team had pre-positioned a few representatives in Japan.
“Time to polish up our Japanese,” quipped the presenter of the webcast at mission control.