With an oceanographer father and a grandfather who was a renowned physicist, the Swiss aviator has continued his family’s traditions of groundbreaking exploration.
This year, marked another aerial landmark, as he completed the first round-the-world flight in a solar-powered aircraft — Solar Impulse 2.
Piccard and fellow pilot Andre Borschberg completed their epic journey last July touching down in Abu Dhabi spending more than 500 hours in the air and having traveled more than 26,000 miles (43,000 kilometers.)
SAHIFANEWS Supercharged presenter, Nicki Shields, caught up with the 58-year-old explorer at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco where he explained some of the perils he faced along the way and how he hopes his record-breaking journey will help bring a clean-fuel future a step closer.
SAHIFANEWS: Bertrand, first of all, congratulations! What an amazing achievement. How does it feel to have circumnavigated the world on solar power?
Bertrand Piccard: “It feels like science fiction. Because when you fly, you look at the sun, you look at your four electric motors turning with the propellers, and you have no noise, no pollution, no fuel, and you know you can fly forever. And you think, I’m already in the future. But it’s the present, you know. It’s the wonders and miracles that technology can achieve.”
SAHIFANEWS: Tell us about your trip … I gather you and Andre Borschberg took turns to fly Solar Impulse 2?
BP: “Yes, there was only one seat in the cockpit, so Andre flew some of the legs, I flew the other legs. We shared the different flights. So Andre started from Abu Dhabi, then we took turns to cross Asia. Andre flew from Japan to Hawaii. I flew then to San Francisco. We shared across the US. I made the first flight across the Atlantic, he flew to Egypt and I landed this year in July in Abu Dhabi.”
SAHIFANEWS: Some of the flights lasted several days — how did you stay awake?
BP: “You sleep little moments of 20 minutes, and then you have the alarm clock ringing because you have to check if everything is OK. Then you can go back to sleep. The last leg, when I flew from Cairo to Abu Dhabi in three nights, I slept an average of 45 minutes per night.”
SAHIFANEWS: That makes me want to cry — the lack of sleep!
BP: “Well, once you get out of your comfort zone, you can do so many more things. The only limitations are the beliefs we have. All our beliefs, all the conditions, all the certitudes, as soon as you get rid of these you function much better and actually this is the magic of adventure.
“When you are really in an adventure you lose all your references. You are in such a state of awareness, of consciousness, of creativity. There’s a rupture from everything we know and because everything is new you just forget what you have learned (and) you try to discover how to adapt to the new situations.
“So you always create new ways of thinking, new ways of doing, new types of reactions — it’s complete awareness. It is a moment of grace. It’s fantastic.”
SAHIFANEWS: What inspired you to fly around the world on “clean” fuel?
“It was always about exploring (and) finding ways to protect the environment. So for me it became also very, very important to do the same. Not just adventure for the fun of it, but meaningful projects.
“So I flew around the world in a balloon in 1999. It was the first … but that was not yet meaningful. It was my personal dream but it allowed me to have the idea of Solar Impulse because I burned 3.7 tons of liquid propane, and every day I was afraid to fall short of gas.
“The flight was 20 days non-stop. And when I landed there was 40 kilos left. And I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to do another flight like that where I am afraid every day of being short of fuel. So how can I fly, with no fuel gauge? How can I fly perpetually?’ And this is when I had the idea of a solar-powered airplane.”
SAHIFANEWS: Are we going to see solar-powered airplanes being used by consumers in years to come?
BP: “It would be crazy to answer ‘yes,’ and stupid to answer ‘no’ because today doesn’t allow 200 people to fly on Solar Impulse. But the Wright brothers — they also did not have the technology to transport passengers and never the less it happened.
“The first computer in the world was as big as a house and now we all have one in our pockets. So Solar Impulse — of course it’s big, it flies only in good weather, just one pilot and no passengers, but it will come to something. It will come to electric airplanes, for sure.
“In 10 years time you will have electric airplanes flying with 50 people on short haul. Maybe not solar across oceans but already first steps with electric airplanes.
“And more than anything, all the technologies that we had for Solar Impulse they can be used in our daily life — to have cleaner mobility, houses that are better insulated, LED lamps, heat pumps, smart grids. If this was all implemented in the world, we’d already be able to divide by two the CO2 emissions. And at the same time, it could create jobs, it would make profit, it would sustain the growth of the industry.”
SAHIFANEWS: So what you’ve done is to showcase the capabilities of solar power?
BP: “Not only solar power, but clean technology. Clean technology — that means technology that makes energy efficient so you can save energy. This is the best way to make profit.
“You know, even for climate change deniers it’s important to understand that you need to be logical, even if you’re not ecological. And logical is to replace the old polluting and inefficient stuff by new modern clean technology. It’s just a way to boost growth again and make jobs.”
SAHIFANEWS: You recently launched the World Alliance for Clean Technologies. What do you hope to achieve?
BP: “My purpose is to speak about solutions because at most international conferences everybody speaks of the problems. But we need to show that solutions exist, that solutions are profitable, that solutions can be used in every situation to be more energy efficient. “To save energy, to save natural resources — this is the most profitable way to live (and) to also protect the environment. It’s an economic opportunity and climate change deniers have to understand that also.