Solar-powered plane attempts first round-the-world flight

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The Solar Impulse 2 took off from Abu Dhabi on Monday on the first leg of its quest to be the first plane to fly around the world fueled only by the sun’s rays.

The solar-powered plane is expected to take 12 hours to reach its first pit stop, in Muscat, Oman, before flying to India, Myanmar, China and on to the U.S.

The 400-kilometer (250 mile) first-leg flight is part of a marathon 35,000-kilometer journey, which is expected to take as long as five months.

The potentially historic flight had been due to take off on March 1 but was delayed by concerns about the weather. Strong dust storms created hazy conditions but by Monday morning the skies had cleared sufficiently for takeoff.

“We have had a lot of sandstorms in Abu Dhabi, and also a lot of wind, sea breezes, higher than the limit,” said the team’s meterologist Luc Truellemans in an interview posted on Twitter and YouTube.

Monday’s journey will be relatively short, compared to some of the longer legs, which will take up to five or six days and nights.

Pilots Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard will spend a total of 500 hours behind the controls over the entire trip, taking it in turns in the tiny 3.8-square meter single-seater cockpit.

Before the takeoff, Piccard admitted the pair”had “butterflies in the stomach” at the thought of getting underway after working on the project for so long.

On Sunday, the pair joked about tossing a coin for the right to fly first, before tearfully revealing that they had already decided who would be doing what.

“Andre has worked on this airplane … for 12 years, from the feasibility study until now; it is more than natural that he takes the first step,” said Piccard.

Borschberg added: “Bertrand deserves to fly the last leg, and to make the arrival in Abu Dhabi, completing the vision he created 15 years ago.”

The pair will also split ocean-flying duties: Piccard will take on the five-day, five-night journey across the Pacific, while Borschberg will tackle the Atlantic.

Solar Impulse’s 72-meter (236-foot) wingspan makes it wider than a Boeing 747, but the plane weighs just 2.5 tons, lighter than a large SUV.

The tiny cockpit will be packed with essentials for the journey — enough food and water for a week — as well as a parachute, life raft and oxygen bottles in case of emergencies.

Borschberg and Piccard, who piloted an earlier version of the plane across the U.S. in 2013, are no strangers to adventure. Borschberg is a former fighter pilot, and Piccard was part of the first team to circumnavigate the earth nonstop in a balloon in 1999.

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