WASHINGTON - In noisy, energetic New York City, a spindly plane that looks more toy than jet hopes to grab attention in a surprising way: By being silent and consuming little energy.
This solar-powered plane is about to end a slow and symbolic journey across America by quietly buzzing by the Statue of Liberty and landing in a city whose buildings often obscure the power-giving sun. Its top speed of 45 mph would earn honks on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The plane, called Solar Impulse, leaves Washington on a commuter-like hop planned tomorrow, depending on weather. It will take hours for the journey and offers none of the most basic comforts of flying.
But that's OK. The aircraft's creators say its purpose really has little to do with flying.
They view themselves as green pioneers -- promoting lighter materials, solar-powered batteries, and conservation as sexy and adventurous. Theirs is the highflying equivalent of the Tesla electric sports car. They want people to feel a thrill while saving the planet. Think Charles Lindbergh meets Rachel Carson.
Bertrand Piccard, one of two pilots who take turns flying Solar Impulse is the grandson of the first man to see the curve of the Earth as a pioneering high-altitude balloon flier more than 80 years ago. His father more than half a century ago first took a submarine to the deepest and most inaccessible ocean trench on Earth.
Piccard says there's no truly new place on Earth for explorers to pioneer. At 55, he's tried. He was the first person to fly around the world nonstop in a balloon. Next, Piccard found a way to explore by looking inward and acting globally.
Solar Impulse's flight across the United States is a trial run that's really preparation for a 2015 around-the-world trip with an upgraded version of the plane. All that's left is Kennedy Airport.
Solar Impulse chief executive Andre Borschberg, the other pilot, will fly the last leg from Washington to New York, and is hoping for a daylight approach to the city so he can get a photo opportunity with the Statue of Liberty.