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Solar Impulse landing
The Solar Impulse 2 plane comes in for a landing at Lehigh Valley, Penn. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

One day after a close call, the Solar Impulse 2 round-the-world airplane made a 17-hour trip from Ohio to Pennsylvania today in preparation for its star turn in New York.

The gossamer craft floated down to Lehigh Valley International Airport just as night was falling, at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) with a crowd of well-wishers in attendance. Some of them flew the Swiss flag in honor of pilot Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer who co-founded Solar Impulse.

“There is an incredible traffic jam around the airport,” Piccard said from the plane’s solo cockpit just before landing. “It’s really fun. … It’s probably the nicest scenery I’ve had for landing.”

A 17-hour flight time from Dayton International Airport to Lehigh Valley would be classified as a nightmare if Piccard had been piloting a commercial jet. But it’s par for the course for Solar Impulse 2.

Piccard had planned to make the journey on Tuesday, but hours before that scheduled departure, the plane’s inflatable mobile hangar collapsed during a power failure. It took a couple of minutes to reset the power and turn on the fans to reinflate the hangar. During that time, part of the fabric wall touched Solar Impulse’s carbon-fiber fuselage.

The Solar Impulse team had to make sure the lightweight plane was still flightworthy. “We couldn’t give a green light for a flight before making sure there had not been any damages inside the structure,” Andre Borschberg, Solar Impulse’s alternate pilot, explained in a blog update.

After hours of checking, the team determined the plane was unscathed – and that the weather was acceptable for today’s early-morning takeoff.

The Swiss-based Solar Impulse effort was founded by Piccard and Borschberg to demonstrate environmentally friendly technologies, with $150 million in backing from corporate partners. In 2013, the first-generation airplane made a coast-to-coast trek across America. Now the upgraded Solar Impulse 2 is taking on an even more ambitious globe-girdling journey.

“It’s great to fly in that plane,” Piccard said before today’s takeoff from Dayton. “Silence, no pollution, zero emission, no fuel. Each flight is a privilege. In each flight we have the impression when we fly, to jump into the future, to be in a moment of science fiction. And then when we land, it’s like going back in the past. We’re still in a world that pollutes, that depletes natural resources, that makes pollution. Well, it’s a world that could be much cleaner.”

More than 17,000 solar cells cover the skin of the plane, which has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet (236 feet) but weighs only about as much as a family car (5,000 pounds).

In sunny weather, the craft can store up enough electricity in its batteries to power its four scooter-type electric motors through the night. However, its average speed is only about 40 mph. Piccard could have easily driven a car from Dayton to Lehigh Valley in less time.

The point of the adventure isn’t to show off speed, but to highlight personal endurance and environmental awareness. Piccard and Borschberg have been alternating turns in the plane’s solo cockpit over 13 legs of travel. The odyssey began in March 2015 in Abu Dhabi, and continued with stopovers in Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Japan.

During last July’s five-day crossing from Japan to Hawaii, Solar Impulse 2’s batteries overheated, and the journey had to be put on hold for nine months while the team made repairs and waited for the return of good weather. The plane was back in the air in March with a trip from Hawaii to California. Then it flew across the country with rest stops in Arizona, Oklahoma and Ohio.

After Pennsylvania, the itinerary calls for a hop to New York City, including a Statue of Liberty photo op, and then a climactic flight across the Atlantic to Europe. If all goes well, Solar Impulse 2 is expected to complete the 22,000-mile circuit in Abu Dhabi by the end of July.

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