Thursday night, I saw a few interesting photos show up on Facebook. Some kind of experimental aircraft landed at Tulsa International Airport and a few friends had gained access to the tarmac to help provide a warm Okie welcome. I didn’t think much of it until the next day, when a different friend emailed me out of the blue and asked if I wanted a ticket to go see the airplane for myself. When I looked a bit closer and discovered it was a zero-fuel solar plane, my interest increased a little. When I looked at their website and read that landing in Tulsa was symbolic for them because it lies at the heart of Route 66, my interest spiked; reserving a ticket for Sunday afternoon was a no-brainer.
I parked at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum (which I still haven’t visited) and took a shuttle bus to the hangar where it was parked. The bus was full; I was surprised by how many kids and seniors were in line with me. I entered the small door for the American Airlines Maintenance Base and was floored by the gigantic interior. I’d never been in an airplane hangar before and I was awed by the sheer size of it. Sitting in the back, surrounded by information boards and gawking locals, was the solar aircraft. About a dozen team members were scattered about, too, answering questions and talking about their mission. Children stood with their mouths agape and elders looked with incredulous awe at the sight of this technological marvel.
The Solar Impulse 2 boasts a wingspan of 236 ft; that’s wider than a 747. It weighs 5,100 lbs which makes it about as heavy as an SUV. The single-pilot cockpit isn’t pressurized for flight, so the pilot has an oxygen mask and a nice coat while he’s cruising at 39,000 feet. The aircraft originally took off from Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015 and has been circumnavigating the globe ever since. Tulsa wasn’t on their original itinerary, but when weather concerns made them rethink their planned stop in Kansas City, the former Oil Capital of the World caught their attention. They left Phoenix, Arizona on May 12th and flew east, following the Mother Road for most of the journey.
When it landed late in the day at Tulsa International Airport, the rest of the Solar Impulse team was waiting. A separate aircraft, a big cargo plane, carries a multinational support team. In addition to the second pilot (the two men trade off between stops) there are dozens of engineers and technicians that tag along. They not only take care of the pilots and ensure mission success, but they also set up makeshift exhibits whenever the airplane parks so that visitors can learn about their mission.
Although the pilots themselves were not on site during my visit, I did get a chance to chat with a few of the other team members. I asked how long it takes to fully charge the batteries: “From 0 to 100 percent, ah, about ten hours,” one of them calculated. “When we’re on the ground, we can only charge about two hours before coming back inside; it gets too hot. In the air, that’s fine, with the wind and all. But the ground takes longer.” In their journey around the world, they’ve also broken the world record for longest solo flight (5 days and 5 nights, from Japan to Hawaii.)
The experience was awesome, in the true sense of the word. I feel very lucky for having the opportunity to see this technological wonder with my own eyes. On my way out, I thanked a crew member for making the choice to stop in Tulsa. I am very proud of T-Town and its heritage, from Route 66 to the energy industry to our long history with American Airlines. To know that a team of people from the other side of the world chose Tulsa because of that same heritage (and that huge hangar, of course) makes me extra proud of my city.