A Certified Solar GA Plane in Our Lifetimes?

11:38 PM

I have just finished watching Home, a wonderfully filmed aerial tour of our planet created by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. In this documentary - shot from about a zillion dollars worth of rented helicopters – narrator Glenn Close explains that as a species, we humans have been on this four-billion-year-old rock for about 200,000 years. The films makes a pretty convincing case that we've pretty much trashed our planet just in the last 50 years alone.

As someone who completely believes that the theory and science behind global warming is real, I know that unchecked, the "faster and faster" civilization that the film describes will continue to deplete our resources. One only has to look at the wild weather that rips through the USA these days to see that something is amiss in our atmosphere, big time. Bigger hurricanes, blistering cold, daily thunderstorms packing more dangerous winds and hail.

We aviators hear the distant footsteps of many in the eco-community who would love to take away our precious 100LL fuels, as if the comparably small carbon footprint made by a few lonely Cessnas out chasing hamburgers is more dangerous to the environment than the endless freeways clogged with Escalades full of spoiled consumers who must have it all, and they must have it now.

Even though the GA community is an almost unmeasurable part of the overall global warming phenomenon, we nonetheless must strive to find cleaner, renewable ways to power our aircraft. One major effort in that direction was announced this week in a press release from Solar Impulse:

Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg today unveiled, at Dübendorf airfield close to Zurich, the Solar Impulse HB-SIA, the first aircraft designed to fly both day and night without fossil fuel or pollution. The project was launched in 2003 and has produced a totally unprecedented aircraft: with the wingspan of a Boeing 747-400 and the weight of an average family car (1600 kg), never has such a large craft been built with such low weight. Over 12,000 solar cells mounted onto the wing will supply renewable energy to the four electric motors with a maximum power of 10 HP each. During the day they will also charge the lithium-polymer batteries (400 kg), which will permit the HB-SIA to fly through the night.
Now this is a project with serious ramifications. Imagine large cargo haulers quietly lumbering along at high altitudes, carrying cargo (and maybe people) long distances with an endless fuel source – the sun – keeping it moving without burning even one dead dinosaur.

What, you don't think a solar airplane can fly long distances? I think the Solar Impulse team would jump at the chance to debate you on that point:
The HB-SIA is the first prototype of the Solar Impulse project. Its mission is to demonstrate the feasibility of a complete day-night-day cycle propelled solely by solar energy. After fine-tuning on the ground, the aircraft should make its first test flights between now and the end of 2009 at Dübendorf Airport. A first complete night flight is programmed for 2010 and will take place over Switzerland. The results from the HB-SIA and their analysis will serve to develop and build a second aircraft, the HB-SIB for circumnavigating the world in five stages, each lasting several days, in 2012.
This is one great project, and when you read the reasons behind the effort, it really makes perfect sense:
"In a world dominated by fossil fuels, and given the urgent need to find sustainable solutions, the Solar Impulse project sets out to demonstrate the potential of renewable energies and to promote their use. It is also a symbol of the energy savings that can be accomplished using new technologies. The pioneering spirit which enabled man to conquer the planet and space in the 20th century should today allow us to find solutions to reduce our dependence on oil, not by reducing mobility and personal comfort, but by creating dreams, hope and enthusiasm."
So can you envision a world where we fly solar-powered GA aircraft? That might be a bit of a stretch, but what about a hybrid aircraft? What about all-electric power, such as the Yuneec E430, a Chinese Light Sport Aircraft that is at this very moment crated and headed to the USA to try and undergo "certification testing" by the FAA in time for EAA's Airventure later this summer.

I think in this world, at this time in our planet's history, we have no choice but to pursue any and all avenues of renewable fuels and methods of power for GA aircraft. If the alternative is to park the fleet because we've run so short on dead dinosaurs that the refineries have stopped ginning any 100LL, than I'll take a solar-powered airframe over a parked one any day.

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