Solar Impulse Makes History at JFK

Solar Impulse turns base-to-final for JFK's Runway 22L

Back in May, I wrote about Solar Impulse and its groundbreaking flight across the United States powered only by the sun. Late last night, that journey completed with the aircraft's arrival at New York's John F Kennedy International Airport.  The journey as a whole has been spectacular and the arrival at JFK was no exception.  However the arrival was not without difficulty and a last-minute change in plans was necessitated.  In the end, I was treated to one of the most bizarre arrivals at JFK ever as well as one of the most challenging airplanes that I have ever photographed.

After departing Dulles International Airport (IAD) outside of Washington DC at 4:46 AM, Solar Impulse flew northeast over the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays, before crossing over Atlantic City on its way out over the Atlantic Ocean where it proceeded to circle for close to 12 hours waiting for the New York City airspace to open up sufficiently.  The reason for such an opening became clear later in the evening.  The plan had been to fly over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, past the Statue of Liberty, and then circle over to land at JFK where an event for press and a limited number of members of the public would be held for the landing.  However about 12 hours into the flight, a tear in the fabric covering the underside of the left wing developed, and the team went into crisis mode.  After a thorough aerial inspection from a helicoptor, the project's engineers stated that the tear was unlikely to get any larger.  However it was now necessary to land as early as was practical. The planned flybys were cancelled and only the arrival event at JFK went on as planned, albeit 3 hours earlier than the original time of 2:00 AM.  Finally, the decision was made to avoid overflying populated areas completely which led to the very bizarre flightpath illustrated below.  For about 30 minutes, the entire airport shut down as the aircraft worked its way around the fringes of the airport to land from the northeast.  Though the 22s had been in use all night, 1 flight quickly snuck out as the airspace was closing on the only available outbound route: Runway 13R.

Solar Impulse's circuitous flight path avoiding all populated areas. Flight path estimated based on published photos and the author's account. Map courtes Google.

Solar Impulse's circuitous flight path avoiding all populated areas. Flight path estimated based on published photos and the author's account.

Map courtes Google.

Our first sighting: just 3 red lights

The landing lights come on. 

At just before 10:00 PM the team determined that Runway 22L was the most appropriate given the current wind conditions.  They also decided that only the landing lights would be used and not the "promotional lights" Initially this was somewhat of a disappointment as I had been looking forward to seeing this magnificent craft all lit up.  However my disappointment turned to excitement when I realized that I would be one of the few to have the chance to photograph it without all the lights on.  After hearing from some other spotters, I decided to set up at the end of the dead-end street we were parked on, a fairly unconventional spot for us.  No sooner than I had set up my equipment, somebody noticed 3 red lights in the sky.  Though it is hard to tell from the picture here, it was an unexpectedly large object in the sky, partially due to just how close to us it was flying.  For the entire time that it was visible to us, it was no more than a mile away from our position.  Equally stunning was just how slowly the aircraft was moving.  I had initially set up to shoot with my widest, fastest lens anticipating a conventional 22L final approach flight.  As we watched it begin to turn towards the runway before it had come even with our position six-tenths of a mile from the runway's end, I hurriedly switched to a longer lens hoping to grab a closer shot, finishing with plenty of time as the aircraft had just passed the mid point of the curve.  It was eerily quiet too, with the only sound coming from the chase helicopter that was capturing photos and video footage.

Passing by us at nearly its closest point.

And finally all the way onto short final.

Though it was quite difficult to see in the low lighting conditions, as Solar Impulse turned in front of us we could get a feel for just how large and oddly-proportioned it was.  In many ways, it reminded me of the balsa wood or paperboard airplane models I had made when I was younger, with its long, slender wings and its even more slender fuselage.  As it came closest to us, the incredibly slow speed at which it was traveling became even more apparent to me.  Though the turn being made was less than a mile in diameter, it still took over three minutes to make the 180 degree arc.  Another astonishing sight was that this relatively tight turn was being done almost completely flat.  The typical banking that we are all accustomed to seeing with any airplane large or small was almost completely missing as the aircraft crept from the base leg to short-final.  It was easily the oddest arrival path that I have ever seen for any aircraft at any airport.  Also worth mentioning is that prior to the technical issues with the wing, there had been discussions about flying in parallel to the final approach path while other aircraft were still landing and then flying in circles until they could land.  That would have been a sight to see, even if it was never meant to be. Though there was a significant technical challenge posed during this final flight, it was overcome and Solar Impulse's Across America mission for 2013 was successfully completed, as was the mission of this particular aircraft as a proof of concept that solar powered flight can work.  With the transcontinental mission now over, this version of Solar Impulse has reached the end of its lifespan having amassed nearly 480 hours of flight on an airframe designed and certified for 500 hours.

While the long term plans for this aircraft have yet to be announced, in the short term you can register for a visit with the aircraft.  Currently, reservations are open for Saturday and Sunday July 13th and 14th at JFK's hangar 19.   I would encourage any of my readers who live in the New York area to reserve a time so that you can see this groundbreaking aircraft for yourself.  As for the future, an around-the-world flight is currently scheduled for the second Solar Impulse aircraft in 2015 and as part of that they will once again be stopping in the United States.  I am personally hoping to get another visit in New York.