Damaged Solar Impulse Lands Early


In the end, one of the most photographed aircraft journeys in U.S. history will have one shot missing, but for the crew of Solar Impulse the mission to fly their solar-powered aircraft across the country has been accomplished. The fragile aircraft, which makes power on its solar-cell-covered wings and stores it in batteries, landed about 11 p.m. at JFK in New York on Saturday night with pilot Andre Borschberg at the controls. The landing came three hours early and before the iconic aircraft could take a victory lap over Manhattan and have its picture taken with the Statue of Liberty. An eight-foot tear in the fabric on the underside of the left wing prompted the crew to set down as soon as possible. The tear caused a minor balance issue but did not seriously threaten the flight. “It was supposed to be the shortest and easiest leg,” Bertrand Piccard, who co-founded the project with Borschberg, said after the aircraft landed. “It was the most difficult one.” And as pilots familiar with New York will attest, it wasn’t just the tear, or fatigue, or weather that gave the flight trouble: It was getting a slot at JFK.

The crew had to negotiate with air traffic controllers to insert the ponderous airplane into the still-busy flow into New York’s busiest field and some of the world’s most crowded airspace. In fact, because of the damage, Solar Impulse needed more time than usual for this landing so Borschberg could minimize the stress on the wing by not using air brakes. It brought a new definition to the term low and slow. Borschberg had to hold off the coast of New Jersey while ATC sorted out traffic enough to allow him to land. One option considered was bailing out and parachuting into the ocean if the aircraft became seriously destabilized. The U.S. trip began May 3 at Moffett Field, near San Francisco, and included stops in Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Washington.