High Flier

Circumnavigating the earth on solar power alone seems a pipe dream, but Bertrand Piccard has no doubt that it can be done.

The panoramic windows of Bertrand Piccard’s house in the hills above Lausanne, Switzerland, offer a view across Lake Geneva to the still snow-covered peaks of the Chablais Massif. A sailboat glides across the lake, a tiny white spot against a vast blue background. Adventurer and psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, with his dark, well-cut jacket, bronzed features and alert blue eyes, brings us coffee. He walks past a small corner of his living room that is full of souvenirs from his expeditions – model airplanes and submarines and photos of his grandfather Auguste Piccard, who was the first person to ascend into the stratosphere in a hot-air balloon, and of his father Jacques, the first man to dive to the deepest point in the ocean, the Marianas Trench. It is a shrine to the intrepid – one to which Bertrand Piccard himself has contributed. He was the first person to fly non-stop around the Earth in a hot-air balloon, and in a year’s time he aims to do the same thing, but this time in a solar-powered aircraft. Though in his mid-fifties, Piccard seems much younger than his years. He speaks in the precise, confident tones of someone who has no doubt at all about what he is doing.

Next year, from March until the end of July, your plan is to circumnavigate the Earth in several stages by solar-powered aircraft. What are your feelings about this undertaking? I’m really looking forward to it. It will be the fulfillment of a dream I’ve harboured for 15 years. But there’s a great deal to be done before then. For example, we haven’t yet been granted all the necessary flyover rights. With this sort of venture you can never lean back and say, “Okay, everything’s ready to go and in a month’s time we’ll be able to take off.” You’re constantly having to work on all sorts of details right down to the last minute.

When you started work on the Solar Impulse project back in 1999, how far developed was solar flight? Back then, a solar-powered aircraft could only fly around midday, when the sun’s rays were at their most intense. But I wanted to stay in the air continuously, even at nighttime. So in 2003, I commissioned a feasibility study from the École Polytechnique de Lausanne. It turned out that we would need an aircraft with the wingspan of a jumbo jet and the weight of an automobile. All the experts I talked to said that was simply not possible. But it is challenges like these that appeal to me. André Borschberg and I don’t just want to copy something somebody has done before. We want to be real pioneers – to blaze our own trail.

Heading into new territory, attempting the impossible, seems to be your family motto. I guess so. It certainly applied to my father, my grandfather before him and to many family friends like Wernher von Braun, as well as most of the American astronauts or somebody like Charles Lindbergh. They were all a key part of my childhood – meeting them had a deep impact on me and made me want to lead a life like theirs. It’s a life in which you believe that virtually anything is possible. A life in which you have no fear of failure, but rather are convinced that dreams can come true. Most people don’t dare to try something new because it seems too difficult and requires too much effort. But if you can forget that and overcome your fear, if you can open yourself to the unknown, to new ways of thinking and behaving, you can have a really interesting life. I think that curiosity is a good antidote to fear.

You have to open yourself to the unknown. Curiosity is a good antidote to fear.” Bertrand Piccard

What do you yourself fear? As a child, I was really afraid of heights. To face up to this fear I started hang-gliding when I was 16. It was like taking therapy.

You eventually became an expert hang-glider. How do you make use of the lessons learned back then when you’re sitting in a solar-powered aircraft? The Solar Impulse behaves like a giant kite – it is very sensitive to the wind. In my youth, I learned how to read wind conditions and use them to my advantage, which also helped me when I was circumnavigating the Earth in a balloon. I learned from that journey what it is like to spend a long period in the air –20 days at a time. I learned that there are moments that are not easy to cope with, for example if you are hovering above the Pacific and are not sure if you’re going to have enough fuel to reach the other side.

What are some of the problems that can occur during a solar-powered flight? The type and intensity of sunshine are very important. We have to charge the batteries during the day so that we can continue flying at night. Every morning will be tense because I won’t know whether the charge will last until the sun comes up.

You mentioned earlier that most of the experts said continuous flying in a solar-powered aircraft was impossible. Yet you and your team managed to build an aircraft that can fly for days without interruption. How did you manage that? We deliberately didn’t take on anyone from the aerospace industry for the project – they may know everything about their field, but they don’t go beyond that. They would have come up with a conventional aircraft, but we wanted something revolutionary. If you want to create something really innovative, you have to think outside the box. For example, we got a shipyard to produce all the carbon parts that make the Solar Impulse so light. Experts from a wide range of different disciplines contributed their experience, which means we have the best electric motors, the best equipment and the best insulation you can get hold of.

To create something really innovative, you have to think outside the box.” Bertrand Piccard

Your aircraft only has room to accommodate the pilot. Will the day come when this technology is capable of carrying more than one person? That will take time. But during daylight hours it will soon be possible for a solar-powered aircraft to carry small numbers of passengers. We are perhaps four or five years away from that at present.

You and your partner, former jet pilot and entrepreneur André Borschberg, will take turns flying for up to five days without leaving the tiny cockpit. How do you cope with that sort of challenge? We have to have a short 20-minute nap every three or four hours. But it’s important to still retain constant control of the aircraft. To do this, we apply a form of self-hypnosis that I also use as a psychiatrist in my therapy sessions. You fall into a sort of trance in which your consciousness and your body are separated. In other words, your body sleeps but you can still operate the instruments. During these 20-minute naps, I open my eyes every five minutes to check that everything is okay.

That doesn’t sound very relaxing. But it is. We’ve tested this technique for a period of 72 hours in a simulator. It worked extremely well.

If you spend such long periods alone in the air, does your behaviour change in any way? When I was flying around the Earth in a hot-air balloon, I felt I was entering a new world. I became at one with nature, propelled by the wind that blows around the Earth. With Solar Impulse it is similar. You can feel how the energy to power the propellers emanates from the cosmos, from another star. You don’t have to dig fuel out of the Earth, gradually destroying parts of it in the process. Our project is not about setting records – it’s about coming up with new ways of thinking and acting. In the 20th century, we sent expeditions to the Moon, to the North and South Poles. Or, like my father, we plumbed the depths of the ocean. But today the focus is on how we can improve life on Earth. We want to inspire people to make more use of the possibilities offered by sustainable energy resources.

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