Solar Impulse 2 pilots recount their soaring moments
Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg took up the challenge of the first round-the-world solar flight, without any fuel
Dubai - Along the 43,041km journey were stories of bravery, resilience, self ?discovery and overwhelming joy - mission accomplished, the pilots share some of these stories with KT
Published: Fri 29 Jul 2016, 10:22 PM
Last updated: Sat 30 Jul 2016, 8:36 AM
abu dhabi - Weighing as light as a family car, with the wingspan of a Boeing 747 and the power of a small motorcycle, the Solar Impulse 2 (SI2), is the largest solar airplane ever built. It is also the first to ever fly around the world in 558 hours, covering 43,041 kilometres, and making 17 stops along the way.
It was the outcome if a dream, hard work and an adventure for the two Swiss pilots, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, supported by over 90 companies and governments, including Masdar, Abu Dhabi's renewable energy company. The journey started with the development of the SI concept over a decade ago, and physically took off from Abu Dhabi on March 9, 2015, landing back in the capital two days ago, on July 26.
Along the 43,041km were stories of bravery, resilience, self ?discovery and overwhelming joy. Now that the mission is accomplished, the pilots share some of these stories with Khaleej Times.
Bertrand Piccard, a medical doctor specialised in psychiatry, an explorer and aeronaut, who made the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, is the initiator and chairman of the Solar Impulse:
KT: From Abu Dhabi to India, China, USA, Europe and back here, you had 17 stops along the way. What was your favourite leg?
BP: There were several. One was crossing the Atlantic which brought back memories of the pioneering 20th century aviator Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to fly across the Atlantic in 1927. I also met Charles during my childhood, so it was very symbolic to me. The most important and the most emotional leg, though, was the last one.
When I saw the lights of Abu Dhabi in the middle of the night, I thought I achieved the impossible - arriving where we started from. When I crossed the finish line, I also knew we succeeded. We still had to circle around Abu Dhabi for an hour and a half before landing - just to keep up with the scheduled timing. It was the most beautiful one and a half hours for us.
What were the scariest moments during the trip?
It was also during the last flight, from Cairo to Abu Dhabi. There was big turbulence over Saudi Arabia because the air is so hot over the desert. The plane is quite light and has a very big wingspan, so it doesn't handle well in turbulence. I had to climb to 28,000 feet; still, the thermal turbulence was scary up to 20,000 feet. After that it became better.
Some years ago, you had another round-the-world adventure, in a hot air balloon. How does that compare with the Solar Impulse flight?
The hot air balloon was a personal adventure, which ended the moment we landed. Solar Impulse is on another level. Right from the first leg, we promoted renewable energy and clean technology and although the flying has ended, the scientific and development journey goes on. The solar flights give credibility to a sustainable future, that is why I announced I would establish an international committee for clean technology link key players with government officials, decision and policy makers.
What should ordinary folk learn from your SI2 adventure?
Two things! First, we all need to have dreams, goals, high targets to reach for in our lives. For me, it was the solar flight, for someone else it might be setting up a new company; for some people, unfortunately, it may be just being able to feed their children. We all need to believe in the power of dreams, to have a vision for the future.
Secondly, with the SI2, we have proof now that clean technology can be implemented all over the world. Not only is it good for the environment, it is good business and it creates jobs. Clean technology is the new market for industry. The ones who understand it will start successful businesses.
How do you see the future of aviation 30 years from now?
When I first started the Solar Impulse project, the aviation industry laughed at me, saying it's impossible. Now they all want to emulate me.
Change will happen much sooner. I would say. within the next 10 years, we will have the first electrical airplane for 50 passengers, ?capable of medium-haul flight, about four to six hours long.
André Borschberg, an engineer and graduate in management science, a fighter pilot and a professional airplane and helicopter pilot, is the co-founder and CEO of the Solar Impulse project:
KT: What was the most exhilarating experience in your flying journey?
AB: Arriving here on Tuesday! The last flight, completing the journey, that was quite exhilarating!
The most challenging experience was 12 years ago, when I heard the aviation industry thought it's impossible to design and built a solar plane that could fly around the world.
As soon as I heard that, I wanted to prove them wrong; I like challenges and contradicting people. I wanted to show them it is possible, and I did!
Crossing the Pacific, from Nagoya to Honolulu, was the longest leg: five days and five nights. How was it?
It was the first time a solar plane flew both day and night, the first to fly over the ocean, and the first to fly such a long distance. It was the pioneer flight of our project. I called it the "moment of truth".
There were big question marks about the flight, like can we accurately predict the weather, but it was also the chance to get into the aviation world that I dreamt about since I was a boy.
When I boarded the airplane, I was full of energy, in a mood to enjoy each day of the flight, but after the first day, we had two technical problems; one that could be solved in the air. The second problem was to do with a piece of equipment that would send sensory alarms to the pilot in case of problems, and it was not working.
The team wanted me back to fix it, but the weather was improving and I decided to continue flying. The engineers on the ground became very emotional, some even threatening to resign, and I had to call them to calm them down, explaining that is my responsibility, and that I knew what I was doing.
The one-seat cockpit was very tight. How comfortable was it in there during long flights?
You need to have the right attitude for such situations, to mentally welcome new challenges, and I was actively doing that.
In a way, it was like organising a home; working out how to eat, rest, work, take pictures, make notes, practice yoga and meditation to cope with physical constraints. I really liked it!
How did you pass the hours, stay concentrated or awake for days at a time?
Most interestingly, you have the opportunity to focus on the present moment, which is very rare in normal life. You become mindful of everything you do. Eating for example: I would take a long time in preparing the meal and eating it very slowly.
I meditated a lot, and really enjoyed being with myself.
Flying is also quite different depending on the time. At night, you lose the sense of direction, so you think more, and that changes your perspective. You feel a sudden movement and get frightened, asking yourself what was that, but then you analyse it and it is ok.