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Solar-Powered Plane Completes Historic Circumnavigation

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Very early this morning in Abu Dhabi, the Solar Impulse 2, a plane powered only by the sun, touched down.

(APPLAUSE)

SIEGEL: Pilot Bertrand Piccard was greeted by a crowd on the tarmac. There was champagne, dignitaries like Prince Albert of Monaco and an army band which played the national anthem of the United Arab Emirates.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Why all the fuss? This flight was the final leg of a trip all the way around the world using solar power - two pilots, 17 flights, 23 days in the air over the course of a year and a half, no fuel.

SIEGEL: We reached pilot Piccard by Skype fresh off the celebration on the tarmac.

BERTRAND PICCARD: You know, I'm arriving now in the hotel room. I don't know where is the light.

SIEGEL: Piccard has been going nonstop. Even from the cockpit he did interviews promoting clean energy technology. On this latest flight, he took a call from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called the trip historic for humanity.

MCEVERS: But Piccard says most of the time you're flying, it's pretty quiet, just you and the sun for days.

PICCARD: You live in the cockpit. You eat. You go to the toilet. You sleep little naps of 20 minutes. You wash yourself with wet wipes. And you fly the plane.

MCEVERS: This last flight was complicated by the heat of the Middle East along with turbulence and the need to navigate no-fly zones. It also was long - took two days and 37 minutes. The plane can be in the air so long because it doesn't need to refuel.

PICCARD: It flies forever. It's endless endurance because it takes the sun during the day to charge the batteries and run the motors, and the batteries are used at night to run the motors until the next sunrise. And then you continue.

SIEGEL: It'll be a long time before we board a solar plane at the airport. Even with these one-man flights, the plane's batteries got fried at one point, and the whole project was delayed for months. Then there's the weather. The plane can only take off when conditions are just right.

MCEVERS: Piccard takes all that in stride. He's a fierce advocate for solar technology and its promise and says Solar Impulse 2 is just the start.

PICCARD: Going around the world, it's a first in the history of aviation. But it's also a first in the history of energy, and this is what we want to demonstrate.

SIEGEL: Right now Piccard told us he's mostly just relieved that they finally did it.

PICCARD: Actually, you know, I'm just so happy and elated to have succeeded in this dream that I had since 15 years. Of course I'm also moved to because it's finished now. I was quite sad this morning when I shut down the engines for the last time. I might never fly again with that plane, so it was very, very moving.

MCEVERS: Among those who greeted pilot Bertrand Piccard in Abu Dhabi were his three daughters and his wife, Michele. She also works for Solar Impulse in communications. Just before the final takeoff, she spoke about how proud she was of her husband's adventure, and she quoted Victor Hugo, who said nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.