It will go down in the annals of aviation: A round-the-world flight without a drop of fuel.
That was the amazing achievement of two Swiss pilots who designed, built, and flew a solar-powered airplane that defied almost every known rule of aeronautics. And broke a few records as well.
I had the privilege of interviewing these two men several times, on the ground and in the air (via satellite). Fifty-eight year old Bertrand Piccard and 63-year old André Borschberg began 15 years ago to design an airplane that would be powered simply by the sun. After discarding the first model (which is now on display in a French museum), they created Solar Impulse 2 -- a delicate, bird-like aircraft weighing no more than a large car, with 17,000 batteries mounted on very long wings.
"Ït was an impossible dream" says Piccard, a psychiatrist, who comes from a family of dreamers. His grandfather Auguste Piccard, a friend of Einstein, set world records for his ascent in a stratospheric balloon. His father Jacques Piccard, who worked at NASA, descended into the deepest part of the ocean in a bathyscaphe. Bertrand himself made history in 1999, flying around the world non-stop in a hot air balloon with Brian Jones.
For Borschberg, a businessman and former Air Force pilot, the challenge was to find "concrete innovations and disruptive solutions....to put dreams and emotions back at the heart of scientific adventure". The project was backed by several high-end European corporations including Solvay, Schindler, Omega, ABB and Moet-Hennessey, who broke out the Champagne whenever a lap was completed.
Altogether, there were 16 laps, beginning in March 2015 in Abu Dubai and ending back there 16 months later, on July 25. The enterprise took much longer than expected due to changing weather conditions at every destination. Patience and persistence and optimism were de rigueur. Because the Solar Impulse plane can hold only one pilot in its very small cockpit, Bertrand and André alternated flights. André started the first lap and also had the longest flight, five days and five nights -- a record non-stop 117 hours in the air -- flying over the Pacific Ocean from Japan to Hawaii. Bertrand had the last lap and also made the three-day flight across the Atlantic -- 71 hours in the air -- taking off from JFK in New York and landing in Seville, Spain.
While flying, they could never allow themselves to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time. To get through the grueling hours, they both practiced some form of yoga, meditation and self-hypnosis. They were in constant contact with the Mission Control Center in Monaco, where scores of specialists worked 24 hours a day to track the weather, the plane, and the pilots. Prince Albert II of Monaco was a great enthusiast and supporter of the project, and often stopped by the Center to follow the progress.
For Bertrand and André, the adventure doesn't end here. To promote the idea of renewable energy, they are setting up an International Commission for Clean Technologies, involving universities, corporations and the U.N. Bertrand is planning to write a book about their exploit.
"We don't have time to rest!", they say. "The worst thing in life is not to have a dream."
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