Flying Around the World on Sunshine
The Solar Impulse 2 has landed. Powered by the sun and manned by two intrepid explorers, it travelled 40,000km to become the first solar airplane to complete a journey around the world, proving that clean technology can accomplish great things. We talk to co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard.
You just made history. How does that feel?
Great. More importantly, there is now the responsibility to take it further. Our goal was not just to fly around the world in a solar airplane, but to inspire the spirit of exploration in the field of clean technology.
You proved a point with a dream. People should not be afraid to dream.
It was a 15-year project. The vision came to mind in 1999 when I flew around the world in a balloon. It was a 20-day flight, and during these 20 days, I was afraid of running out of gas. Then I thought, there must be a better way to fly with no fuel at all. Thus began Solar Impulse. What seems impossible always takes a little more time. People told me I couldn’t do it, but that was a challenge that stimulated me. I want to show people that the pioneering spirit and exploration can reach the impossible. Many people don’t dream or try; they are prisoners of their zone of comfort. So we have to dream, and we have to work to bring them to reality.
No mere leap of faith. It was a finely designed and executed endeavour.
To fly night and day, you need high energy efficiency and low energy consumption. The batteries are charged in the day in order to fly at night. The plane weighs as much as a car. The cockpit is enough for two pilots. The wingspan is wider than that of a Boeing 747. Yes, it was engineered down to every detail. We had a mission control centre in Monaco, where engineers calculated the best trajectories, altitudes and timings in order to make the best of the battery. There were days when we couldn’t fly because there were too many clouds or too much wind.
Some legs were as long as five days. How did you stay sane in such a small cockpit?
Yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis. The cockpit is like a little house. You do everything. You fly, eat, go to the toilet, take 20-minute naps and clean yourself with wet wipes. This is what I love. It was wonderful, like science fiction. You don’t need to wait for the future. I’ve dreamed of this since 1999, when I flew around the world in a balloon. I was afraid of running out of gas and I knew there had to be a better way to fly without harming the environment.
What do you foresee in the future of aviation?
I bet that in 10 years' time, electric aviation will develop. Currently there are electric planes that can only fit two people, but that will progress. Electricity is so much cleaner and efficient, and that's what the world needs. The best way to do so is on two different parallel roles - one to produce energy and the other to save. It is no longer an idealistic protection of the environment. It makes economical sense.
You’ve highlighted why people should care more about the environment.
It is the only way to survive. My grandfather (Auguste Piccard) made the first flight into the stratosphere, and my father (Jacques Piccard) made the deepest dive into the Mariana Trench. They were explorers and they showed me that scientific exploration and protection of the environment were necessary. Adventure is useless if it doesn’t help others to have a better quality of life.
Will you fly on solar power all over again?
It would not be the same. What is fantastic is that when you do it the first time, nobody thought it was possible. You have no benchmark, you have to invent and you have no one to help you. Do it again and you know it is possible. You just have to reproduce something that has been done. It’s not pioneering or exploration anymore.