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Solar-powered plane begins unprecedented China-to-Hawaii flight

It took longer than expected to find the right weather, but a Swiss pilot is now airborne attempting something never attempted before – flying a plane across the Pacific with no fuel, only solar power.

Andre Borschberg took off in the Solar Impulse Plane from Nanjing, China, at about 2:40 a.m. Sunday. If all goes well, he will land the slow-moving, solar-powered plane in Hawaii after five or six days, after traveling 5,000 miles across the Pacific.

After that, Solar Impulse co-founder Bertrand Piccard is slated to fly the plane to Phoenix, once he finds a “weather window” that long eluded the team in China.

“Good flight to Hawaii, @andreborschberg my solar brother!,” Piccard tweeted soon after Borschberg departed. “Enjoy every moment of it!”

Swiss pilots Borschberg and Piccard are taking turns attempting to fly the one-seat plane around the world. The product of a decade of work and fundraising, the Solar Impulse plane gets its energy from 17,000 solar cells on its 236-foot wide wings.

In a previous interview, Borschberg described the challenges of the flying the plane, which has wings wider than those on a Boeing 747 but is lighter than a minivan.

“It is difficult to fly, especially at the beginning,” said Borschberg, 62, a former fighter pilot with the Swiss air reserve. With its lightness and wide wingspan, the plane reacts slowly to a change in controls, making it easy for a pilot to overcompensate, he said.

During his Pacific crossing, Borschberg will have to avoid cross-winds and any unexpected thunderstorms. He will also need to use techniques to maximize energy efficiency. To do that, the Solar Impulse pilots fly the plane high during the day and then slowly descend during part of the night, with the engines turned off.

The danger, however, is that if there are clouds in the morning, it can be difficult to recharge the plane’s batteries.

The pilots says they are prepared if, for whatever reason, they are forced to ditch the plane in the ocean. Each pilot carries a parachute and life raft and has been trained in ocean survival. The flight's progress can be tracked at www.solarimpulse.com.

Solar Impulse took off from Abu Dhabi on March 8, and after several stops, landed in the southern China city of Chongqing on March 29, the fifth leg of its journey. Piccard and his support team hoped to be there for only a few days, but bad weather delayed the flight to Nanjing, China, until April 20. They then were stuck in Nanjing until Sunday, unable until then to find the right weather window to continue to their journey.

Borschberg’s journey is expected to take him over South Korea and northwest of Japan before heading out across the Pacific.

The team says their goal isn’t to set speed records but to make a statement about sustainability and the potential of advanced technologies to do things never before attempted.

“We really want to prove that energy efficiency, solar power and modern technology can achieve the impossible,” Piccard said in a previous interview. He watched Borschberg take off Sunday from the team’s mission control center in Monaco.

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