Lack Of Creature Comforts Made The First Trans-Atlantic Solar Flight A Challenge

Extreme temperatures and an unpressurized cockpit made Solar Impulse 2 an uncomfortable flight experience.

Jul 7 2016, 6:14pm

Solar Impulse 2 is the record-breaking aircraft that achieved the first ever trans-Atlantic flight powered solely by the sun.

With a wingspan of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and weighing a mere 2,300kg, the plane itself is a technological marvel. While it's certainly not the world's first solar plane, it is the first to fly for 5 consecutive days and nights without any traditional fuels.

To achieve this, over 80 engineers and technicians sought every possible optimization and employed completely novel technologies to provide efficiencies, reducing weight and energy consumption to achieve what many aircraft experts considered implausible, if not impossible–a plane with nearly unlimited stamina.

Watch Piccard discuss the challenges of his monumental achievement.

While the plane demonstrates nearly unlimited endurance, the same can't be said of its human pilots. An unpressurized and unheated cockpit that lacks the creature comforts of traditional aircraft posed enormous difficulties for pilots Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg.

Lack of movement, oxygen, and sleep were as taxing on the pilots as the creation of technological innovations needed for the aircraft were for the engineers. In order to keep the plane as light as possible, many of the traditional comforts of aircraft cockpits were eliminated.

On Solar Impulse 2, long periods of sleep are not possible. Instead its pilots were limited to short naps of roughly 20 minutes. Piccard utilized self-hypnosis to rest his mind and body, learned from his background as a psychiatrist, and tested during his balloon expeditions. Borschberg, a longtime practitioner of yoga and meditation, has honed the discipline of his body and mind, focusing his breathing to bring relaxation. And because of long periods of inactivity, which cause numbness and circulation issues, the pilots used Jukari bands for exercise in the cramped quarters–making sure to keep blood and muscles active.

Flight suits and undergarments.

The pilots' diets must also be carefully regulated. Expertly designed by nutritionists, all edible needs were met with the use of fresh products with innovative packaging methods designed to withstand changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature.

Temperatures on a flight can range anywhere from –40°F and +104°F, with some special thermal insulation, engineers were able to cut the variances in temperatures to -4°F to 95°F–not exactly a day on the beach. To deal with these extremes, next-gen clothing was utilized to aid in the pilots comfort. A bespoke flight suit was engineered using nylon to maintain body temperature, special underwear stimulates blood circulation, and heated gloves and boots keep extremities warm.

While Solar Impulse 2 is a remarkable technological achievement, the vision, willpower, and determination of its pilots and engineers played no small part in the initiative's record-breaking successes.