The longest journey, as they say, begins with the first step, which for Piccard ends after midnight tonight when he touches down in Phoenix. He and his crew have spent several weeks in California, assembling and testing the aircraft after having it flown from Switzerland aboard a Boeing 747.
Piccard is rightfully proud of the airplane, known simply by its Swiss identification number HB-SIA. It is as massive as it is delicate. It’s wingspan of 208 feet rivals that of a 747, yet the plane weighs just 3,547 pounds. It is made almost exclusively of carbon fiber and photovoltaic cells. I caught up with him a few days ago, and he explained with obvious excitement the joy of flying this albatross-like solar-powered airplane.