Car companies aren’t the only ones advertising their gas mileage. Now airplane makers are doing it too, and bringing new technologies on line in the process.
This past Sunday, an airplane built by Pipistrel, a Slovenian company, left Ljubljana, to fly some 62,000 miles, circumnavigating the globe in about 2 months. The project is a collaborative effort with Penn State University.
The plane is called a Virus-SW914. It’s light, weighing in at only 640 pounds with a maximum take-off weight of about 1,500 pounds. An ultralight in the United States weighs about 250 pounds, and in Europe the Virus would fall into that class.
To cut weight and increase fuel capacity, the plane has extra tanks put into the wings, as well as an all-electronic instrument suite. Dropping the weight will let the plane get as high as 30,000 feet. Cruising at about 170 miles per hour, a typical Virus engine gets about 36 miles per gallon, but the modified version will far outstrip that and go somewhat faster, at about 180 mph.
The pilot, Matevz Lenarcic, plans to fly to Morocco, then to Senegal, and then across the Atlantic. After that he’ll take the plane up and down the coasts of South America, overfly the Antarctic and make his way across the Pacific to New Zealand, Australia, southeast Asia and back to Africa.
The flight isn’t just designed to set records. Pipistrel hopes to show that small aircraft can make important contributions to climate science. It’s also an attempt to study the effect of black carbon and light-absorbing aerosols on the atmosphere. The flight path will take it to areas that don’t have good networks of sensors. A light plane can also look at several different altitudes, getting a three-dimensional picture of the atmosphere in a given area.
Pipistrel won the NASA’s 2011 Green Flight Challenge in October, marking the third time the aircraft manufacturer has shown its eco-friendly stuff. That plane, called the Taurus, was a different design that flew 400 miles on a gallon of gas.