...without a drop of fuel. A third-generation adventurer, a fighter pilot and a solar-powered plane that can fly at night: the testing times of finding a new way to travel.
Bertrand Piccard squeezes himself into the narrow cockpit of his solar-powered plane and feels like a prisoner. There’s not a lot of room in there. He can barely move. An engineer has to climb up to him to hook him up to an on-board computer.
Piccard, 54, is wearing a life-jacket over insulated overalls to protect him from the cold. He has a parachute on his back. On the wing above him, 10,748 solar cells soak up the evening sunlight.
Piccard’s plane, codename HB-SIA, has a wingspan of 63m, the same as an Airbus A340. Yet he is huddled in a cockpit half the size of a telephone box.
“You can’t see the wings at all,” he says, of his pilot’s view. “You’re sitting in there like a horse wearing blinkers.”
Five assistants push the plane into position with their bare hands. At 1,600kg, the highest performance solar-powered plane in the world weighs the same as a medium-sized car. When the pilot gets in the cockpit, the carbon fibre wings tremble all the way to their tips.
The nearby Payerne weather station is reporting winds of four knots (7.4kph), a light breeze wafting over this military base 50km south-west of Bern in Switzerland. Piccard looks out onto the horizon through his rimless glasses. The fire brigade position their fire engines on the edge of the runway. This is his third test flight in the HB-SIA this year.
The day before the test flight, Bertrand Piccard is sitting on a white sofa in the hangar in Payerne. His most striking facial feature are the steely blue eyes with which he fixes everyone he talks to. He is a third-generation adventurer. In 1931, his grandfather, Auguste, became the first man to reach the stratosphere in a balloon, and in 1960, his father, Jacques, was the first man to descend 11,000m into the Mariana Trench. The film director James Cameron was the last person to do so in March 2012.
“I was raised to be curious,” Piccard says. In 1999, he became the first person to circumnavigate the globe non-stop in a hot air balloon. He needed three attempts before finally landing in the Sahara after flying a distance of 42,810km. On his first attempt he fell into the Mediterranean. On his second attempt he had to come down in Burma. “I realised then how dependent [humans] are on liquefied petroleum gas,” he says.
“When I flew from Switzerland to Belgium last year, I had more energy in the battery at landing than at takeoff. That’s mind-blowing”
The Swiss hopes that his Solar Impulse project will make a statement against mankind’s fuel consumption, but without wagging fingers. “No one wants to give up their comfortable lifestyle. But why would we have to? Clean technologies already exist and have huge potential. If we can fly around the world without using a single drop of kerosene, we can also do without fossil fuels on our roads.”
The first circumnavigation of the globe by solar-powered plane, in a five-stage flight, is planned for 2014. In Dübendorf, near Zurich, Solar Impulse engineers are currently poring over the successor to HB-SIA. The electronic components need to be better protected against the rain. The wingspan will increase by 8m and provide room for yet more solar cells.
The HB-SIA plane can already remain airborne night and day thanks to its ingenious storage technology. While the sun is shining, lithium polymer batteries collect energy which can be used for flying at night. The clock starts ticking when it gets dark. You have to be able to fly until sunrise, which is when the batteries go flat. Pilots must fly in an energy-efficient way at night, which means as much gliding and as little propeller use as possible.
Read the full story in May's issue of The Red Bulletin.