Icarus reborn | Inquirer Opinion
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Icarus reborn

I was dozing off the other night with the TV on, and catching portions of a newscast about a solar-powered plane about to land in Hawaii after a record-breaking solo flight.

My eyes were shut and I began to imagine a man flapping wings made out of bird feathers, soaring toward the sun. The imagery comes from Icarus, a character out of Greek mythology who wanted to fly, and had improvised wings. His father had warned him not to fly too low, because the sea waters would damage his wings, or too high, because the sun would melt the wax. Alas, Icarus came too close to the sun and plummeted to his death.


I imagined that this 21st-century version of Icarus involved a man in a tiny solar-powered plane, but when the newscast picked up on the excitement and applause in Hawaii as the plane was about to land, I got up and saw, on the TV screen, a fairly large plane. (It turned out its wing span extended 71.9 meters.)

I was now fully awake, swept up by the excitement thousands of miles away over this solo flight organized by Solar Impulse, a project to develop experimental solar-powered aircraft.


I decided then and there to dig up more facts about this project and write about it. I also want to encourage the teachers among my readers to bring Solar Impulse (and Icarus) into the classroom to inspire our students.

Epic flights

Icarus, I thought, was reborn, but was now successful in this new project called Solar Impulse. I began to think about what this will mean for the future. BBC described the flight as “epic,” so did we just witness a new chapter in aviation, as significant as the Wright brothers’ first successful airplane flight in 1903?

As with that first Wright brothers’ flight, which flew a grand distance of 37 meters in 12 seconds, Solar Impulse is still like a toddler discovering initial walking steps. Solar Impulse 1 was the first plane to be developed, capable of staying airborne up to 36 hours. In 2013, it successfully made a multistage flight across the United States.

Solar Impulse 2 is more ambitious, aiming now to circle the world in 13 stages. It started in March 2015, taking off from Abu Dhabi for the first segment. By June, it had flown across Asia. This latest segment involved a five-day (118 hours, to be exact) solo flight by Andre Borschberg from Nagoya, Japan, to Kalaeloa in Hawaii, a distance of 6,700 kilometers, all done without a drop of fuel.

Solar Impulse 2’s energy to fly comes from 17,248 photovoltaic cells covering the top of the wings, the fuselage and the tail, harvesting sunlight during the day and converting this into the “fuel” for the plane.

Solar Impulse is the name of a privately financed project that began in 2003, after a feasibility study conducted by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. I’m mentioning this to underscore the importance of research in universities. It is mainly privately funded with some 80 technological partners, and with $6.4 million from the Swiss government.


I like the way Solar Impulse is always referred to as a “project” even if it involves so much money as well as a large team, described in one article as composed of some 50 engineers from six countries, with 100 outside advisers.

Two planes have been developed, both having been flown many times for shorter trips. The successful one last week involved Solar Impulse 2.

The project leaders are Borschberg, a Swiss engineer and business person, and Bertrand Piccard, a Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut. Again, I’m mentioning their backgrounds to emphasize how in this day and age, we are returning to innovations led not so much by specialists as by people who can think laterally, across disciplines.

I thought of Icarus again when reading about Piccard, who first drew public attention as a copilot of the Breitling Orbiter 3, using a hot-air balloon (also sometimes described, more elegantly, as a gondola) to circumnavigate the world, nonstop. There had been two failed attempts but on March 1, 1999, Piccard and Brian Jones took off from a Swiss village and, after 19 days, 21 hours and 55 minutes, landed in the Egyptian desert—a successful round-the-world trip.

The story of Icarus is supposed to be a kind of morality play, warning people against hubris and being too ambitious. But that was centuries ago. Today, Solar Impulse actually turns the story of Icarus on its head. The sun is no longer a target and an adversary but a partner, providing the energy for flight.

Running on empty

There’s more to these stories of human imagination. On the Breitling Orbiter 3 was a copy of Guy de Maupassant’s “A Life,” which had nothing to do with hot-air balloons, or at least not directly. The book had De Maupassant’s autograph, dedicated to the great novelist Jules Verne, whose “Five Weeks in a Balloon,” published in 1863, was a prophesy of the Breitling Orbiter. Verne’s grandson had loaned the book to Piccard and Jones… for good luck.

For Solar Impulse 2, I kept thinking of the expression “running on empty,” meant to capture the despair that comes when you realize you have run out of resources with no hope in sight.

Solar Impulse 2 ran on empty, but a lot of science and technology, with imagination and daring thrown in. There’s more, too, than solar energy here. The pilots, flying alone, needed to stay awake. They’ve trained to do this, using 20-minute naps and—get hold of this—meditation and yoga, the latter to promote blood flow and maintain alertness.

The sun has intrigued humans from time immemorial and Icarus is only one variation of the tale, warning humans not to be daring. China has a similar myth about Kua Fu, a man who dies in his attempt to chase the sun.   Today, China has a space weather forecasting project named Kua Fu, showing how old myths can take new meanings.

We need to encourage young Filipinos to become modern-day versions of Icarus, especially while they’re still in school. While researching on Solar Impulse 2, I remembered, and went into the Internet, to look for information on De la Salle University’s solar cars. The DLSU project first made front-page news in 2007 when its Sinag solar sports car participated in World Solar Challenge in Australia, successfully completing a 3,000-kilometer journey in seven days, one day ahead of the deadline.

Since then, with support from private companies, the DLSU has developed new cars. The last news item I could find about its solar cars was about a Sikat II, but there was very little information.

Did I just give two paragraphs to De La Salle?

Now, I would think its initiatives, and University of the Philippines engineering students’ award-winning electric vehicles, would be more newsworthy than some of the star-struck stuff we get in the papers and on TV.

Seriously, whatever the school, a greener and cleaner future means we need Icarus to be reborn in our classrooms, our science labs and, I hope, in the not too distant future, in our homes and our communities, our roads and, yes, let’s dare to think of the skies.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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TAGS: Greek mythology, Icarus, Science, Solar Impulse, solar power, Technology, Transportation
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