Nightly News   |  May 03, 2013

Solar-powered flight aims to go cross-country

The Solar Impulse is attempting to fly across the country without a single drop of fuel. If that flight goes well, it will try to circle the world in 2015. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> finally tonight in this age of routine air travel a couple of aviators began a slow journey across the country today. they will push eastward in regular increments flying at about 45 miles an hour. their aircraft took off from an airport in california powered by nothing more than the sun. if all goes well, they will be the first to fly across america in an all solar-powered plane. their story tonight from nbc's tom costello.

>> reporter: sunrise over san francisco , and solar impulse is slicing the morning sky on a record-breaking flight across america , cruising at 30,000 feet with 12,000 solar cells and not a single drop of fuel. andre and -- are the swiss visionaries and pilots taking turns in the cockpit hoping to put wings on a revolution in solar and green technology .

>> this is kind of a wright brothers moment, isn't it?

>> this is about inspiring people for what they can do in their own life.

>> reporter: already in europe their plane has flown higher and longer than any other solar plane. from dawn to dusk to dawn again. charging their batteries in daylight to power the propellors at night, with room in this lightweight plane for just a single pilot. and the total weight?

>> 3,500 pounds. that's like a volkswagen golf or the wing of a jumbo jet .

>> reporter: now they plan to fly further and longer in a city-hopping trip across america . 24 hours per leg without stopping. if all goes well, in 2015 , around the world in 20 days. that means spending three days and three nights over the atlantic, five days and five nights over the pacific in a cockpit about the size of a bathtub. what does a pilot do when nature calls? for that trip they are actually building a toilet into the pilot's seat. this mission is all about forward-thinking.

>> there is science, exploration and this beautiful way to promote clean technology that is so important for the future of mankind.

>> reporter: using solar power on commercial planes may be decades away but these two 21st century pioneers believe the only way to push the green envelope is to push science and themselves to the edge. tom costello, nbc news, san francisco .

>>> it's a big plane, very visible. it has running lights and there is a way to track the flight via gps on our website especially for those who may live beneath its path and want to try to catch a glimpse as it goes by.