Virgin Global Flyer to Airbus A350 via Solar Impulse

When you push the boundaries and try to do things nobody has ever done before, you never know what it will lead to. When we built the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, we knew it would lead to exciting innovations, but who could have foreseen that flight leading to Virgin Atlantic’s latest investment over a decade later?

The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer broke the world record for the longest non-stop flight around the globe from February 28th to March 3rd, 2005. The late, great Steve Fossett flew the carbon fibre plane solo non-stop around the world in 67 hours and one minute. The Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, constructed from carbon fibre, was the most carbon efficient aircraft ever built. The thinking behind it was to show airline manufactures that it could be done. After the flight we called Airbus and urged them to come and see the plane and learn more about the clean technology it was utilising. Airbus’ team flew over to the Mojave Desert and worked with our team to find out about the carbon fibre technology.

Fast forward 11 years, and I found myself at Farnborough Airshow to announce Virgin Atlantic’s new A350-1000 aircraft. Our order, valued at $4.4 billion, for 12 of the aircraft is a real investment in the future of the airline, our customers and our people. It is also an investment in clean aviation technology, as we build one of the youngest, cleanest, greenest fleets in the sky. The aircraft is designed to be 30 per cent more fuel and carbon efficient than the aircraft it replaces in the fleet and is expected to reduce the airline’s noise footprint at its airports by more than half. The A350 is made from 70 per cent advanced materials, including 53 per cent carbon-fibre; it is lighter and therefore burns less fuel than similar aircraft in its class. Now we need to get to 100 per cent on new models, and strive for new innovations, such as making windows out of materials like graphene and seats out of equally strong light materials. Everything should be geared towards getting the world to carbon neutral by 2050. 

When you try something extraordinary, it breeds more extraordinary things. For example, the Global Flyer was designed by Burt Rutan. After this collaboration, we went on to work together on Virgin Galactic, as we set about creating the world’s first commercial spaceline.

There is a clear lineage from the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer to Virgin Atlantic’s new Airbus A350s. There is also a clear link from our pioneering flight to the incredible feats currently being achieved by Bertrand Piccard’s Solar Impulse. Bertrand and André Borschberg have completed the first round-the-world solar flight, powered only by the sun, with no fuel or polluting emissions. 

I was fortunate enough to speak to my old friend Bertrand while he was at the controls of Solar Impulse on the world record attempt, flying between New York and Seville – you can watch our conversation above. It was thrilling to see the plane in action, harnessing a clean and renewable energy form that could one day be replicated far and wide.

As Solar Impulse explain: “Everybody could use the plane’s technologies on the ground to halve our world’s energy consumption, save natural resources and improve our quality of life. This message is being spread by the pilots to the general public, students, key decision-makers and entrepreneurs all over the world.”

Every adventure is a thrill, but they are far more rewarding and exciting when they have a wider purpose - there are few more important purposes than pioneering clean energy. Solar Impulse is the perfect tool to show the need to power our world on clean energy. At Virgin we’re trying to make sure that all our airplanes will be powered on clean energy in the years to come. From Virgin Global Flyer to Airbus A350 via Solar Impulse, it is planes like this that will help us lead the way.


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