Abu Dhabi: It is not every day that a journalist has to wake up at 2am to report on an unfolding story. But July 26 was not just another random day in Abu Dhabi.
At 4.05am when the first crack of dawn was still distant, the UAE capital was making a tryst with history. Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane, touched down at the Al Bateen Executive airport early morning on Tuesday after completing a trailblazing 40,000km round-the-world trip.
The plane that took off from Abu Dhabi in March 2015 had circumnavigated the world without a drop of fuel, opening new vistas of possibilities in renewable energy.
“Good Morning Abu Dhabi! Assalamu Alaikkum!” Bertrand Piccard, one of the Swiss pilots who flew for 48 hours as part of the last leg of the flight from Cairo, greeted the crowd of Emirati officials and journalists as he stepped out of the cockpit in an orange jacket and embraced co-pilot Andre Borschberg. “Sultan Al Jaber, we are back. We had promised we will be back,” Piccard called upon the Chairman of Masdar, the official sponsor and host of Solar Impulse 2. It was a moment Piccard, 58, and Borschberg, 63, had waited for the last 17 years. Tears and emotions flowed freely as the pilots relived their experiences.
“It was fantastic. A lot of people doubted the feasibility of the project. But we proved that there is no limit for innovation,” Piccard said.
The near-impossible feat of flying 40,000km over 16 months was the ultimate test of grit and endurance for the pilots.
Cooped up in a fragile plane with a single-seat cockpit that doubled up as a toilet, the pilots had to battle sleep, fatigue and bad weather. The journey had to be postponed on many occasions due to bad weather. Piccard and Borschberg alternated as pilots to fly the 16 legs of the journey, cruising 8,500 metres during the day and climbing down to 1,500 metres in the evening to save energy.
Borschberg, who flew the longest non-stop leg of the epic adventure, crossing the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii, said there were moments when he feared he will not make it.
“There were times when I was terrified the plane will not make it over the Pacific,” Borschberg told XPRESS.
The pilots said their biggest challenge was to overcome the scepticism of the people.
“We were facing the oceans. We had to do it. We have to build the mindset and not just the plane and technology,” Piccard said.