July 7th, 2013 12:41 PM
NEW YORK — A solar-powered aircraft completed the final leg of a history-making cross-country flight Saturday night, gliding to a smooth stop at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The Solar Impulse touched down at JFK at 11:09 p.m. local time, completing the final leg of the cross-continental journey that started in California in early May. For Saturday’s final leg, the aircraft left Dulles International Airport a little before 5 a.m. local time.
The flight plan for the revolutionary plane had called for it to pass the Statue of Liberty before landing early Sunday at New York. But an unexpected tear discovered on the left wing of the aircraft Saturday afternoon forced officials to scuttle the fly-by and proceed directly to JFK for a landing three hours earlier than scheduled.
The pilot, Andre Borschberg, noticed balance issues with the wing in the early afternoon Saturday off the coast of Toms River, New Jersey, said Alenka Zibetto, a spokeswoman for Solar Impulse.
Officials said the pilot and aircraft didn’t appear to be in danger. They said the eight-foot tear on the lower left side of the wing wasn’t expected to worsen through the final portion of the trip.
Despite the relatively short distance, Saturday’s commuter-like hop was a long flight. The slow-flying aircraft was traveling between two of the world’s busiest airports and was required to take off very early in the morning and land very late at night, when air traffic is at a minimum.
“This is a leg where everybody is quite moved,” Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots who took turns flying the Solar Impulse across the United States, said shortly after the plane was in the air over Washington early Saturday.
The aircraft, powered by some 11,000 solar cells, soars to 30,000 feet (9,140 meters) while poking along at a top speed of 45 mph (72 kph). Most of the 11,000 solar cells are on the super-long wings that seem to stretch as far as a jumbo jet’s. It weighs about the size of a small car, and soars with what is essentially the power of a small motorized scooter.
The Solar Impulse left San Francisco in early May and has made stopovers in Phoenix, Dallas-Fort Worth, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dulles.
The cross-country flight is a tuneup for a planned 2015 flight around the globe with an up-graded version of the plane.
Solar Impulse’s creators view themselves as green pioneers — promoting lighter materials, solar-powered batteries, and conservation as sexy and adventurous. Theirs is the high-flying equivalent of the Tesla electric sports car.
Europe saw the solar plane first with a test flight from Switzerland and Spain to Morocco last year.
Promoted as solar-powered, what really pushes the envelope with this plane is its miserly energy efficiency, Borschberg said before the flight.