Finding hangars to house an aircraft with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is no easy task when planning a round-the-world journey. That’s why the Solar Impulse team designed an inflatable mobile hangar to be used on the Solar Impulse’s planned 2015 circumnavigation of the globe. After a storm damaged the hangar that was to host the solar-powered aircraft at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the team was forced to deploy the structure for the first time to keep the 2013 Across America mission on schedule.

The light weight of the Solar Impulse aircraft means it is particularly susceptible to damage from adverse weather conditions. Anticipating that it would be unlikely that every airport it will visit on its 2015 mission will be able to provide such protection, the Solar Impulse team devised a hangar they could take with them. The result is an inflatable, modular structure that measures 88 m (289 ft) long, 32 m (105 ft) wide and 11 m (36 ft) high at its tallest point when deployed. That’s enough room to house Solar Impulse, which has a wingspan of 63.4 m (208 ft) and measures 21.85 m (71.7 ft) wide.

The hangar is constructed from a textile material that is strong enough to withstand winds of up to 100 km/h (62 mph), yet is thin enough to be translucent so as to allow sunlight to shine through and charge the aircraft’s batteries. It is also very light for such a large structure, weighing in at 3,500 kg (7,716 lb), which equates to 2 kg per square meter (0.5 lb per sq ft) of ground surface.

Although the hangar is supposed to take 12 people six hours to deploy, the team managed to get it up in a few hours in St. Louis on Monday to house the Solar Impulse after its 21 hour and 21 minute flight from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with Bertrand Piccard in the pilot’s seat. This was Piccard’s longest flight to date, and longer in duration than the second leg of the mission from Phoenix to Dallas/Fort Worth with André Borschberg, Co-founder and CEO of Solar Impulse at the controls. However, at 1,040 km (646 miles), the distance traveled was well short of that record-breaking flight.

“We brought the inflatable hangar to the USA for testing purposes and in fact it allowed the mission to stay on schedule,” said André Borschberg, Co-founder, CEO and pilot of Solar Impulse. “This exercise is now a proof of concept: rather than taking the airplane to a hangar, we have taken the hangar to the airplane.”

After resting up under the hangar and giving the public a chance to check out the aircraft on open days on Thursday and Friday, the Solar Impulse will continue on to Washington, D.C. before the final leg of the 2013 Across America mission takes it to New York in early July.

Source: Solar Impulse