Solar Impulse crew gears up to transport plane to Abu Dhabi launch site

Before Solar Impulse flies around the world, it's got to get to Abu Dhabi. As its ground crew chief and developer will tell you, that's no mean feat, either

From its home in southern Switzerland, Solar Impulse is gearing up for its journey to the Middle East where it will begin its five-month flight around the world powered only by the sun.

But the plane’s trip to Abu Dhabi, the host city for the launch and finish of this historic flight, is a challenge in its own right, as Solar Impulse’s team works to disassemble the aircraft, protect its sensitive wings and components from damage during the journey by truck and cargo plane, and then put everything back together.

The plane, to be flown by adventurers Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg, is slated to be displayed at the World Future Energy Summit that’s part of the Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week from Jan. 17 to Jan. 22, 2015.

Before Solar Impulse makes its journey to the capital city of the United Arab Emirates, we had a chance to ask Nils Ryser, the ground crew chief, and Robert Fraefel, its head of airplane development, about some of the challenges of shipping a 2,300 kilogram aircraft with a 72-meter wingspan halfway around the world. After all, it’s not going to pass for carry-on luggage.

Nils and Robert, thanks for talking with us. How long does it take to deconstruct and pack the plane?

Robert: All told, it takes about three weeks, but that includes component upgrades and maintenance, the latter of which is mainly done at the old Swiss military airfield in Dubendorf. If we were just taking it apart, disassembly alone could be completed in under a week, but the schedule is optimized to allow for the technical work to take place simultaneously.

How is it packed for transportation?

Nils: The large sections of the wing, tail and fuselage are mounted onto box truss transport jigs. Smaller parts are packed into wooden crates using foam packaging to protect them, and the tools are packed into plastic pallets for commercial cargo.

How are all the different parts of the plane protected during transportation?

Robert: This is really critical. The large parts are actually left exposed, and so complete care must be taken as they are loaded into the cargo plane. The foam in the wooden boxes is sufficient to protect the smaller parts as they are transported by commercial transport planes from Basel to Abu Dhabi.

Nils: There’s the matter of disassembling the airplane, while coordinating maintenance and upgrades. But one of our biggest challenges is preventing damage to the delicate structure and wing covering. Plus, keeping track of all the individual parts is important, since everything must come together again in Abu Dhabi in time for Sustainability Week.

What part of the plane is the heaviest?

Robert: The central section of the wing is the heaviest single part, weighing in at 350 kilograms, about a fifth of the plane’s total weight. The batteries have a high density, with each of the four weighing around 155 kilograms.

The wingspan rivals that of big commercial jetliners. How does the wing come apart?

Nils: It actually separates into three sections, each of them just over 20 meters long. They’ll take about two days to make the journey to Abu Dhabi. By contrast, dismounting the propellers, motors, batteries and gondolas and then getting them all safely to the Middle East will take about seven days.

How will it be transported?

Robert: Some parts have already been moved to Dubendorf by truck. The majority, particularly the larger pieces, like the wing, will eventually be flown into Abu Dhabi via a cargo plane that’s loaded through the nose. Standard-size pallets loaded with the other components will be flown from Basel as commercial cargo. It’s a real team effort – including some employees from ABB who are pitching in to help things move smoothly. In all, around 25 people will are involved, with the electrical and workshop teams are particularly busy during the transport phase.

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About the author

John-Philip Miller

I’m the senior editor in ABB’s group corporate communications team, in Zurich. For most of my career I’ve been a reporter, at Bloomberg News in Zurich and then for the last 10 years at The Associated Press in Idaho.
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