High above the night sky in Muscat the first glimpse of aviation history in the making could be seen. Through the darkness the row of lights came closer and closer. At 8.14pm on March 9, Solar Impulse 2 silently touched down on the new runway at Muscat International Airport, completing the first leg on its record-breaking attempt to circumnavigate the globe in an airplane without using a single drop of fuel.
As Swiss pilot André Borschberg emerged from the cramped cockpit of Solar Impulse 2 after 13-hours to cheers from the waiting crowds, the relief was etched on his face.
For over an hour, the plane was forced to circle over Muscat due to strong winds. With a weight of just 2,300kg – the equivalent of a regular car – attempting to land Solar Impulse 2 in those conditions would have been too hazardous.
As the winds dropped, the plane came in. With a 72-metre wingspan, larger than that of a Boeing 747, it was a magnificent sight.
“It’s great to be in Oman,” said Borschberg as he stood on the edge of the cockpit, where fellow Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard joined him. Both donned mussars, the traditional Omani style-turban, in recognition of the important role that the Sultanate has played in this historic journey, which will see them travel 35,000 kilometres around the world in 25 days over the course of roughly five months.
Powered solely by energy from the 17,000 cells spread along the massive wings, the plane can fly up to an altitude of 8,500 metres at speeds ranging from 50 to 100kph.
It was at 7.12am on Monday morning that Solar Impulse 2 took off from Al Bateen airport in Abu Dhabi at the start of what has been described as marking the “beginning of a revolution”.
“The first leg (of the trip) is extremely important and to have Oman as the first destination represents the values that we have in this project. Oman is a country of explorers,” said Borschberg, who trained as a pilot in the Swiss air force.
Leaving on the first leg of a project that has been 12 years in the making was “very emotional”, he said.
Describing the moment he saw Oman from the cockpit as he crossed the border from the UAE, Borschberg said: “I saw the mountains of Oman emerging through the haze. It was unreal. It was very special.”
A welcoming reception, led by HH Sayyid Shihab bin Tariq Al Said, Advisor to HM The Sultan and Chairman of The Research Council, was waiting for them on the tarmac, with the lights from the new Muscat airport under construction twinkling away in the background.
Thousands of kilometres away in the Solar Impulse Command Centre in Monaco, Prince Albert II of Monaco celebrated after watching the plane arrive safely on Omani soil.
“By receiving Solar Impulse 2 in Muscat we are conveying a clear message to our next generations of Oman,” said Aimen Ahmed al Hosni, general manager of Muscat International Airport. “It opens the door wide towards a new era of alternative and renewable energy.”
On July 7, 2010, Borschberg made history when he flew 26 hours in Solar Impulse 1, demonstrating that it was possible to fly day and night with only solar energy propelling the airplane, paving the way for the round-the-world attempt.
But before this could happen, an even bigger plane had to be built – Solar Impulse 2.
At 5am on Tuesday morning, Piccard was due to clamber into Solar Impulse 2 and take his place for the next leg to India, flying across the Arabian Sea. That journey was due to take around 15 hours, weather permitting of course.
Next will be Myanmar, China, Hawaii and New York.
The longest single leg will see a lone pilot fly non-stop for five days across the Pacific Ocean between China and Hawaii, a distance of 8,500km.
The pilot’s seat in the small, 3.8-cubic metre cockpit doubles as a sleeping berth and toilet. They only sleep for short 20-minute catnaps at a time, with the aircraft able to fly on autopilot during rest breaks.
During the trip, the pilots will endure extremes of outside temperatures from -40 to 40°C. The cockpit, which is not pressurised, does not have air conditioning or heating, although it is insulated to offer some protection.
The only company they will have during the long flights will be the Solar Impulse 2 pilot’s mascot, “Nilsy”, a soft toy meerkat kept tucked in the cockpit and named after the team’s on-ground manager.
“We have worked for this for 12 years and now is the moment of truth,” said Bertrand Piccard.
“Our goal is not just to break records, but to make people realise the potential of clean technologies.”