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Solar Impulse over the pyramids
The Solar Impulse 2 airplane sails over Egypt’s Great Pyramids. (Credit: Solar Impulse)

After a photo op with the Great Pyramids, the Solar Impulse 2 airplane touched down in Egypt for the last layover in its 16-month, round-the-world odyssey.

Solar Impulse pilot and co-founder Andre Borschberg finished up his final turn at the controls with a sun-drenched landing at Cairo International Airport at 7:10 a.m. Wednesday (10:10 p.m. PT Tuesday), almost 49 hours after he took off from Seville in Spain.

“It’s fantastic to have this team, and to be able to do what we do with this spirit – it’s super,” Borschberg told the mission control team in Monaco via a cockpit radio connection.

Now it’s up to his fellow founder, Swiss psychiatrist-adventurer Bertrand Piccard, to close the 22,000-mile loop and pilot the solar-powered plane to Abu Dhabi, the place where the journey began in March 2015.

Piccard and Borschberg came up with the idea and raised $170 million to support the effort – partly to take on an epic adventure, like Piccard’s round-the-world balloon flight in 1999, but mostly to draw attention to clean technologies.

Solar Impulse 2 is an upgraded version of a plane that made a fuel-free trip across America in 2013. This plane has a wider wingspan than a Boeing 747 jet (236 feet vs. 224 feet) but weighs only about as much as a minivan. It can fly day and night in clear weather, thanks to more than 17,000 solar cells and more than 800 pounds of advanced lithium polymer batteries.

The plane doesn’t travel that fast – typically, only about 40 mph – but Piccard has said Solar Impulse’s technology could blaze a trail for future fuel-free flight on a commercial basis.

The journey hasn’t always been smooth: Last year, the team had to wait out storms as the plane made its way from Abu Dhabi to Oman, India, Myanmar, China and Japan. During Borschberg’s trans-Pacific trip to Hawaii, Solar Impulse’s batteries overheated, forcing a nine-month delay for repairs and the return of favorable weather.

Piccard returned to the air this April, and the plane plowed ahead to California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Just by the luck of the draw, Piccard also took on last month’s trans-Atlantic leg of the flight, touching down in Seville. Now that Borschberg has flown the Seville-to-Cairo leg of the journey, Piccard will be prepped for the final flight to Abu Dhabi.

As Borschberg neared the end of his last tour of duty in the cockpit, he spent some time circling over the pyramids as well as the Great Sphinx while photographers clicked away on the ground and from an escort airplane flying nearby.

“That’s something we needed to have,” Borschberg told the mission control team after the landing. “It was really superbly organized.”

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