Solar pilots: Piccard and Borschberg

My interview with André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard on flying a solar airplane, their tour around the world, and how their technology could advance sustainable progress on the ground. Here is the transcript:

Q: What does flying mean to you, to both of you?

Bertrand Piccard: For me, flying is the fact of entering in another element, which requires more awareness, more consciousness of the situation. It’s a way to get out of the comfort zone, and to be obliged to have more efficiency, more concentration. This is what fascinates me the most, the fact that as soon as you leave your certitudes and you habits on the ground suddenly you feel that you have so much more freedom.

André Borschberg: It’s interesting, because I was just going to use the last word that’s Bertrand has used, freedom. For me, it’s freeing myself in some ways from gravity. Of course, we always come back on earth with the airplane, but it gives the possibility to be in the space, to enjoy the third dimension, and in the end, to be free. So it sounds strange, because of course it’s more and more a regulated activity. But still in fact this dimension opens up the mind and opens up the heart as well.

Q: In the history, there have been generations of aviation pioneers. You are also trying to do a pioneering thing. In the past years, you’ve developed a completely new type of aircraft that pushes the limits of aviation even further. Maybe you can explain to us how that works.

Borschberg: This is an airplane which has one special feature, which is to have unlimited endurance. So with the technology we use and with the philosophy that we have applied, it can fly almost forever. And why can it do that? For two reasons: The first one is that we don’t take any energy from the ground, so we collect energy directly from the space, from the sun, and it’s enough to fly day and night. And in order to be able to fly day and night, we had to build an aircraft which has the highest energy efficiency, which uses as little energy to fly. That is what really makes it truly special, and what also opens up thoughts and potential visions for the future, that Bertrand developed, when he had this idea about fifteen years ago.

Piccard: Very often, the protection of the environment is boring and expensive, and it’s presented as a big problem that doesn’t motivate anybody. So we believe that, we have to make the protection of the environment really exciting, spectacular! To show that it’s the new adventure of the 21st century. And Solar Impulse has this goal. Solar Impulse is a way to demonstrate how the new clean technologies can save energy, save the natural resources of our planet, and show that renewable energies can achieve absolutely incredible things. The pioneering spirit today is not anymore to go back on the moon. It’s to make a better quality of life and to protect humankind.

Borschberg: What we developed in this airplane are technologies, of course, which allow us to fly day and night, but which can also be used in many other applications. We have better electric motors, which can be used in cars, we have lighter insulation and better insulation materials which can be used in simple applications like refrigerators. So everything which has been done can find its way in our daily life on the ground as well.

Piccard: And this is really the philosophy of pioneering. First, we want to open a new door with André together and our team. We want to show what is feasable. And then, of course, the industry will take over, and will develop it and make applications for everybody. In the history of aviation, you’re speaking of pioneering, it’s exactly the same. In the beginning, things seem completely impossible. And this is what motivates the creativity of the pioneers. If it was easier, everybody else would have done it before. So take impossible challenges, obliging the team to be curious, creative, innovative, and achieve the impossible. And with André, we’ve been motivated and inspired a lot by the pioneers of the last century, I think this is what gives us the energy and the drive to do the same actually.

Q: How does it exactly work? You say it can fly day and night, almost indefinitely. How I can imagine the flight actually to work in terms of technology, the solar panels, the batteries? How do you do it at night?

Borschberg: So first of all we use the sun as a source of energy. So by having solar cells integrated in the airplane, we transform the sunrays into electricity. And this electricity is used to propell the airplane through electric motors, but is also stored in two different ways: I mean batteries, but also in altitude. Which means, the day we climb at very high altitudes, the altitude of the airlines, and we use this altitude at the beginning of the night to slowly fly down, sink at a very, very low speed for a few hours. And this saves time of the batteries. And then, when you have this vision, and when you have this concept – we had to build an airplane which is very big, because with a big wingspan you have a very high efficiency in terms of aerodynamics, simply in fact the airplane flies and glides extremely well. And second, it is very light, the weight of a car. So that’s the size of a 747, but weighing not more than the weight of the car. And all these combines give you the possibility to just use the energy from the sun, and to fly a week, a month, almost in an unlimited way.

Q: But for now you cannot fly for months, right? There is still a limit to it, right? And another question…. Can you also take off with the solar energy?

Borschberg: Yes, you can, because you need very little runways in fact to be airborne, so over a few hundred meters you have sufficient speed to be able to take off. But as you said in fact, for the timing it’s difficult to fly long duration, because on one side we have a sustainable airplane in terms of energy, but it needs a sustainable pilot as well, I mean for its own source of energy – and that’s what we are training, what we are developing, that’s what we are working on. The human is for the time being in some ways the limiting factor.

Q: Could you explain that further?

Piccard: It means that such an airplane, without a pilot, could have the payload of a camera or telecommunication technologies in order to replace satellites at lower altitudes and for a cheaper price. So developing countries could have such a Solar Impulse airplane, flying for WiFi for everybody, for cellular phones, and things like that. And when you have a problem, you are not just sending another satellite to space, but you get the plane down, you repair it, and you put it back in the sky again. And this can last for years.

Q: And in terms of passengers, how many people fit into the current version of Solar Impulse?

Borschberg: So for the time being – as we are really at the first step, it’s the beginning, this is really a pioneering project – we have only one pilot on board. If it would be easy, the project and the flight would already have been done by someone. So we are at the beginning. We are at the time of the Wright Brothers, between the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindberg, when pioneers were trying to fly longer, where pioneers were trying to fly over the ocean. So it was the beginning of the aviation as it is now the beginning of this clean aviation.

Q: How does it feel to fly it, is it different kind of flying? Mr. Piccard, I also know you are a psychologist and psychiatrist, from that perspective – what does it mean to fly the Solar Impulse?

Piccard: It’s true that André and I we both fly the plane, but not together, because there is only one seat, so we take turns. And it’s a very, very interesting aeroplane to fly. Because of it’s size and its very big lightness, it is sensitive to turbulence, so you need to fly by good weather. A little bit like the Wright brothers, when they were flying 100 years ago, they also needed good weather. And this airplane has a lot of inertia, it’s very strange, if you put a normal airplane pilot in this airplane, he just cannot handle it. Because it’s very, very special. But what makes it also so special, is the fact that it is unique. And when you fly with it you know that it’s the baby of a team, and you have millions of people who are following the flight, because the message of Solar Impulse is a message that is carried by so many people. Bring cleaner technologies to have a better future. So it’s a priviledge for us to fly this plane, it’s also a responsibility, to all the supporters, that follow us.

Q: Would you say this could also be a blueprint for the future of civil aviation in general?

Piccard: I would be crazy to answer yes and stupid to answer no. Because today we don’t have the technology to transport 200 people in a solar airplane, but the Wright brothers also did not have the technology for that. And nevertheless 40 years after the Wright brothers people were crossing the oceans with commercial airplanes. So it might be the case for solar aviation, if the technology keeps on developing through industry always.

Borschberg: But what is clear, is that the technologies we have on board of this airplane, which allow us to reduce drastically our energy consumption, can be used in many other applications. Yesterday Bertrand did a night-flight training, so the airplane flew through the night. And we had a lot of visitors who came to see this flight. And during night we have a lighting system which is extremely strong, but using this new LED technologies, which provides almost daylight at landing for the pilot but using the power and the energy of two small light bulbs that you have next to your bed in your bedroom. So the technologies we have available today are such that we can dramatically reduce our energy consumption in our daily life. That’s really what we try to promote, we try to demonstrate, we try to present. And you know we believe, that if this can be done in airplanes, it can be done everywhere on the ground.

Piccard: Don’t forget that half of the energy consumed every day by humankind is wasted because of the losses due to old technologies! You could divide by two the energy consumption of the world by using the same type of clean technologies than the one we have on Solar Impulse.


Q: What do you think is the responsibility of the aviation industry in general for the environment?

Borschberg: I think it’s like in many other industries. It’s important, but you have to realize that aviation is creating only 3 percent of the CO2 which is produced by human activity. So by far it’s not the major one. If we really want to have dramatic reduction, we can certainly start where we have the highest level of producing CO2. And in aviation it’s certainly going to be difficult to bring new technologies, because in aviation you can’t cheat. I mean if our airplane is too heavy, it doesn’t fly. If our plane is slightly too heavy, it would not fly day and night. So the challenge is immense. So we are really arguing that the fuel, and the oil, and the fossile energy is extremely important, but should be used where it gives the highest added value. And it’s certainly not by using oil to heat up homes that we achieve this goals.

Piccard: Philosophically speaking, aviation also has a role. It is to inspire people. I think the 20th century has really been the century where humankind could change the world by the invention of aviation. And people were fascinated. They were inspired. They were following each step of this great adventure until the moon landing, you know. And today we have to keep this spirit of pioneering, and show to people, that what seems impossible today, can be achieved – if you have curiosity, if you are ready to get out of your comfort zone, if you are ready to get rid of your certitudes and old beliefs that keep you prisoner of the wrong way, the wrong direction in your life. This is really inspiring for that. And I think aviation is like a flagship for innovation.

Q: Your next big challenge is going to be the flight around the world. Maybe you can tell us a bit about that. I mean that is really the big thing you’ve been planning for years, right?

Borschberg: It’s true. This vision, Bertrand had it 15 years ago, when he flew around the world with a balloon. And at the time, he with his partner Brian Jones, they used about 4 turns of propane to heat up the balloon in order to be able to fly, and to change altitude during the entire flight around the world. And he thought, he really asked himself if it would not be possible to get rid of this dependency and on the pressure. Because I think when they landed they had only 40 kilograms left just after the crossing of the Atlantic. So you can imagine the pressure they must have in the cabin at the time. So that’s when the idea started. And that’s true, now after 12 years of work we are planning our flight starting in March, from Abu Dhabi, and going eastwards direction India, China and then crossing the two oceans, Pacific and Atlantic. And of course this will be the challenges because it’s long, this will be long duration flights, up to 5 days 5 nights, for one pilot only. So you know when I said, we have a sustainable airplane in terms of energy, we have to build the pilot as also being sustainable as well, it will really have to become a reality. How to pilot and live in such narrow environment for 5 days, 5 nights, that’s of course the challenge.

Piccard: But we are confident. We are confident in the sense that it’s an extraordinary airplane, and André has been leading this technical team to build the first prototype, and now to build Solar Impulse 2. And it’s amazing to see this airplane, the way it flies, the technology it has, and I think both André and I we just look forward for being 5 days 5 nights over the oceans alone in this cockpit. And I think you know it’s also a philosophical experience, to fly for so long alone and to adapt to all the crazy situations that will happen. So it starts with a technological adventure, then it’s maybe a ecological adventure, and it’s really a philosophical adventure also.

Q: Just a quick follow-up question: For me it’s really hard to imagine how you will actually practically live there for the 5 days. Will you sleep, eat, is there a bathroom in the airplane? Can you put it on autopilot?

Borschberg: The goal is to make it sustainable. So we try to have, I mean, some kind of a normal life. So yes, we will eat, we prepared some special food with one of our partner, Nestlé nutrition. That’s special because the temperature in the cockpit will vary between plus 35 when it’s warm in the morning with the sun, but down to minus 15, minus 20 when we are high at the beginning of the night, so the food of course has to be prepared in a special way to be able to cope with these temperatures. Yes, we will sleep, but for very short time. We plan to have 20 minutes resting period, and we developed also other ways to cope with this challenge, to find a different way to relax and to rebuild in fact the energy. Bertrand is using since a long time and also during his balloon flight self-hypnosis, I am using yoga meditation, breathing techniques to keep this high alertness level. Yes, we have a toilet, because we also want to make it sustainable, something which is integrated into the seat, has been tested. We both spent 72 hours in the simulator, nonstop, living in fact in this narrow space to learn to really develop our home in a homely feeling in this hightech cockpit.

Q: And how long will the world tour take in total?

Piccard: If anything goes as planned, we will make about 11 stops. Some of the flights will last 5 days and 5 nights, some of the flights will be maybe 24 hours. And we will start from Abu Dhabi, and then fly direction east over India, over China, the Pacific Ocean, America, Atlantic Ocean, Northern Africa or Southern Europe, and back to Abu Dhabi. And this 25 days of flight in total will be spread over a period of 5 months.

Q: What is the most challenging part of the flight? Is there one that is really exciting where you think, uh, that could be the hard challenge?

Borschberg: I think both [oceans] will be because they will be very different. They are different in terms of weather pattern, during the entire crossing, so I think both will represent a big challenge for both of us.

Q: But you are positive that you’re gonna make it, I am sure. You’re not afraid at all.

Piccard: We are just afraid enough to be able to train, to be obliged to train to prepare ourselve. We were recently in Northern Germany, Nordholz, to make a training session in a swimming pool and then in the North Sea with a German Navy, to learn how to survive, so all this is just because we take it really seriously. Now, we have no certitude that we’re going to be successful. But you know in life the worst is not to fail. The worst is not to try.

Q: If you are successful, and the world tour can be completed, what will be your next step after that. Is there something that you are already dreaming about, that you wanna do next?

Borschberg: I think we have a lot of ideas on one side, but we don’t want to have plans. Because I think we want to go through this, and be extremely open afterwards to the opportunity it will create. So yes, we have potential plans, yes, we have potential strategies – you know the technologies we have build, that we have now in this team, is incredible. That’s the team which has the most experience in building an airplane bigger than the 747 with these new materials able to fly for this long duration. That’s an airplane which normally flies over the desert only, because experimental airplanes are tested over remote areas, in case they fail, in case they have problems. This airplane will have to fly towards the major cities, land on the major airports, around the world, so it has to be safe, it was designed to be safe. It was designed to be reliable, so there’s a tremendous expertise in this team, and of course we want to leverage on these skills and on this experience in the future.

Piccard: And one important thing also for André and I is to really have everybody understand that they can use the same technologies. And when I say everybody, it’s not only the consumer, when he makes his choices, of energy, but it’s also of course the political world. We need political courage in order to introduce the legal frame that will, or that should replace the old technologies by new clean technologies. And we have already been working with several governments to encourage parliaments to take the legal decisions for that.

The interview was recorded at Deutschlandradio Kultur, Berlin / Radio Télévision Suisse, Lausanne studios via an audio connection, on November 14, 2014. I incorporated sound bites in my reports on January 8, February 27, and March 9, 2015 (in German).

Images © Solar Impulse | Revillard |