My Ups and Downs with Solar Impulse

By Bertrand Piccard, initiator, chairman and pilot of Solar Impulse.

As we just completed our Round-The-World adventure, something I’ve been dreaming of for so long now, many memories of this amazing experience are coming back to me. Here are some of the most important ones:

A vision is born

March 21st 1999

I was sitting in the Egyptian desert, my back resting against the capsule of my hot air balloon, gazing at the horizon. The wind, which had pushed Brian Jones and I during 20 days non stop around the world on board Breitling Orbiter 3, only just allowed us to accomplish our round-the-world flight, despite the fear of seeing our fuel supplies run out. I couldn’t stop now. This success had to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. I had to go beyond my personal dream and fly around the world again, but without fuel this time, flying perpetually, surpassing the fossil fuel dependency from which humanity must free itself. I had to show that exploration can go from the discovery of new continents to the promotion of a better quality of life. Solar Impulse was born at this moment, on the early morning of March 21st 1999.

The public launch of Solar Impulse

November 28th 2003

What to do with a crazy idea? After a first trip in the US to explore different options, I turned to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) for support. A feasibility study was launched and its management entrusted to engineer, entrepreneur and fighter pilot, André Borschberg. The study concluded that my vision was credible, but there was no money, no team and no technology. How to start? Certainly not step by step in a discrete way, as this would lead nowhere, and would leave us the possibility of giving up later in a moment of discouragement. So the project of flying around the world in a solar airplane was publicly launched at a press conference organized by Stefan Catsicas, head of the EPFL research. When I saw the 2000 people present, I told Stefan and André: “Now there is no turning back…!”

Securing our first partner: Solvay

March 21st 2004

It was a couple of days after the official announcement. I was feeling a bit anxious with an uncertain future in front of me. During a speech I was giving for Solvay in Belgium for their Innovation Day, I seized the opportunity of offering them a partnership. In front of 2500 guests, including the Crown Prince, I told the story of my grandfather who, after having gone up to the stratosphere, told King Leopold that he now wanted to dive to the bottom of the ocean. Immediately after that, he said to his assistants: “Now that I’ve announced this to the King, I have to do it”. It was my turn to make the same promise: “Now that I’ve presented my intentions in front of the Crown Prince Philippe, I have to achieve this solar adventure, and if possible, with Solvay…” The result was spectacular: this company became Solar Impulse’s first Main Partner. So many had rejected this project, telling me it was impossible. Finding a strong company that decided to trust and support my vision was thus both a relief and a victory. In the following years, it was also through encounters, after inspirational speeches given to corporations, that I was able motivate 60 companies, individuals and institutions who helped us to achieve the impossible.

Unveiling Si1

June 26th 2009

That day in Dübendorf, Switzerland, the first prototype was finally unveiled. Solar Impulse 1, designed to fly both day and night, was inaugurated and the 800 people present at this historical event were not disappointed. A very emotional moment for the entire team. It had taken us seven years of hard work, André leading the technical team and I finding the partners that provided the funds and technology. How could I thank enough such a magnificent team, how could I sufficiently congratulate all those engineers who had calculated, designed and built this first prototype? I couldn’t wait for the test flights to begin!

The first night flight

July 8th 2010

With the credibility of my message about renewable energy totally dependent on the success of André’s night flight, this risk was not as much a technical one as a political one. For years I had proclaimed in interviews, conferences and political meetings that renewable energy would allow us to achieve the impossible; that clean technologies would free us from our reliance on oil. We were deeply convinced of this, though with nothing yet to prove that it could in fact be done. This proof we wanted to give by flying through the night on solar energy and by flirting with fuel-free perpetual flight. But if, for any reason, even a tiny detail having nothing to do with energy at all, we had failed, we would have seriously damaged the cause we wanted to promote. This was at the back of my mind throughout André’s 26-hour flight, creating a tight feeling in my stomach, and keeping me awake each second. But André made it through the night! Not only in staying airborne, but also in making my discourse credible. As the sun came up, there were still several hours of energy supply left in the batteries. We were right to bet on our conviction.

My first flight with Solar Impulse

July 12th 2011

My past as a balloonist and hang gliding champion was not the best way to make the jet plane pilots in charge of the flight missions trust me. Although it was my project, none of them were ready to take the risk of letting me destroy “their” baby. And I understood this very well. I had to prove I was able to control what was probably the most difficult airplane to fly. Even the former NASA chief pilot had crashed in our flight simulator. So imagine what this would entail for me! In 6 years, I had to obtain licenses for gliders, motor gliders, single and multi-engine airplanes, night flights, instrument rating, completing hundreds of flight hours. All of this was already obvious for André who could pilot almost any flying machine. He had much more experience and was allowed to fly Si1 before me. With the courageous support of the team and my family, I was finally ready to make my first flight with Solar Impulse in July 2011. On that morning, there was a hot air balloon in the sky, a symbolic reminder of the distance I had travelled in the past years… It was for me the victory of perseverance, hard work and faith.

Flying from Madrid to Rabat

June 7th 2012

This was my first mission flight with Solar Impulse 1. The crowds cheered as I landed Si1 in Rabat after 19 hours airborne and the first intercontinental flight in a solar airplane! My first words: “Bonjour le Maroc!” immediately brought me millions of friends in this beautiful country who were so thankful we had chosen this destination. It was a beautiful landing, with rays of spotlight piercing through the darkness, enthusiastic journalists, guests, the Solar Impulse team, and representatives of the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN). As initiators of the world’s largest thermo-solar power plant, they share Solar Impulse’s message that solar energy is no longer restricted to the scientific world but is becoming an integral part of our daily life. Aside from technical and political reasons behind the decision to fly to Morocco during the Crossing Frontiers mission, the flight over the Gibraltar strait was a magical moment and represents one of the highlights of my career as an aviator.

Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge

April 23rd 2013

We had chosen to begin the Across America mission in San Francisco, and started dreaming of flying Si1 over the city’s iconic symbol: the Golden Gate bridge. We didn’t dare ask the American civil aviation authority, but fortunately they suggested it themselves. When you see the result, it may have seemed easy to take such pictures but it really wasn’t and everything was close to being cancelled due to high winds and the arrival of the fog. We owe André the possibility of having incredible images. He flew the helicopter in a demonstration of perfect skill, circling the plane as if rock’n’roll dancing, sideways, backwards, in order to offer the best angles to our photographer Jean Revillard. I never saw a helicopter pilot of this level. I know he would have loved to fly Si1 over the Golden Gate bridge, but without him in the helicopter there wouldn’t have been any pictures! The landing in Moffett was also symbolic for me as it is a NASA airbase. It was while watching several Apollo lifts-off in Cape Kennedy as a child that I made myself the promise of becoming an explorer!

Landing in Nanjing

April 21st 2015

My job as a pilot was relatively easy during this sixth leg of the Round-the-World journey. However, the flight preparations at the Monaco Mission Control Center proved challenging for our team of weather specialists and engineers from our partner Altran. They simulated all possible trajectories and exhausted all different strategies to get Solar Impulse 2 in the air; from defining pit-stops at airports along the route, to different speeds, altitudes and holding patterns. This journey was essential from a technical perspective as it was used to verify and fine-tune final elements in the preparation of the Pacific Ocean crossing — flying five consecutive days and nights, a feat never accomplished before. We had been stuck in Chongqing, China, for 20 days so the team was extremely excited to welcome me when I landed in Nanjing. Seeing all their happy faces looking up at me as I opened the cockpit door is a moment I will always cherish.

Deciding with André not to come back to Japan and continue the flight to Hawaii

June 28th 2015

Not long after the takeoff from Nagoya, the automatic pilot monitoring system gave up. André could still sleep, but one of the wake up systems would not work if turbulence were to destabilize the aircraft. A quick fix was found immediately, but for the engineers, it was still an absolute “no-go”. Not for André and I. The weather window was the best we’d seen for 2 months, and all the vital functions of the aircraft were fully functional. We couldn’t sacrifice the great leap for something so trivial. There was a deep division in the team: the engineers who built the aircraft wanted to protect their baby by scrupulously respecting procedures, and the rest wanted to save the project. Returning to Nagoya would rule out a later takeoff, with the approaching rainy season and administrative investigations triggered by an emergency return to base. You can’t cross an ocean without losing sight of the coast, even if it’s a frightening thought. The whole team learned an important lesson… Exploration is a leap into the unknown. At that moment, I still didn’t know what would happen, but I was firmly convinced that continuing was the right decision. It’s not every day that you have an appointment with destiny…

No flight before 2016

July 19th 2015

The Pacific really rejected me in 2015. And I am not just talking about the postponement to 2016 of my flight from Hawaii to the US mainland, which I’d so been looking forward to, but also about my return flight to Switzerland. All the passengers in the airliner had decided to close their window-blinds and total darkness reigned. I could only imagine the sublime view outside as the sun kissed the ocean. For the first time in years, I had failed to get a window seat. I plucked up the courage to ask my neighbor why he’d lowered his blind, hinting that it was partly mine too. He could find nothing better to say than that everybody had done the same. The answer I hate most. Was it a reason? Not for me anyway, who had been looking forward to contemplating this stretch of the Pacific in advance of next year’s trip…

Attending COP21

December 13th 2015

As a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Environment, I was invited to the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris and asked to make several speeches illustrated by Solar Impulse’s credibility in clean technologies. I spent 2 weeks with the SI digital team motivating negotiators towards a historical decision, informing the press, and proving that profitable solutions already exist. As the conference came to an end, I found myself hoping that the COP21 agreement could really make a difference in this selfish and blind world we live in. 195 countries agreed on ambitious measures to protect not only the planet, but more importantly humanity. Replacing old polluting and inefficient systems with modern and clean technologies, ceasing to burn fuel in engines and heaters, is simply “logical” and not just “ecological”.

Michèle, the pilot of the pilot

April 18th 2016

The Pacific stretched out before our eyes, from Hawaii to San Francisco. It was going to be my first oceanic crossing with a solar airplane. Michèle and I were sitting on a rock, in each other’s arms, listening to the sound of the Hawaiian waves on which our hearts were surfing. From the beginning, she has put all her love and energy into this project, to give it, beyond its aeronautical dimension, a philosophical one. Solar Impulse would not be where it is today without her and her perseverance in always pushing me one step further than where I would naturally go. If we felt so confident that day, despite the scale of the adventure that lay ahead of us, it was because we knew that what we had accomplished together was right.

Live transmission with Ban Ki-moon from the middle of the Pacific

April 22nd 2016

This is the reason why I initiated the Solar Impulse adventure: to influence governments in adopting more ambitious energy policies thanks to a spectacular demonstration that clean technologies and renewable energy are mature. Before the live satellite connection was established between my cockpit and the United Nations headquarters in New York, where the heads of states were signing the Paris Agreement, I had more butterflies in my stomach than when taking off from Hawaii towards San Francisco. After Ban Ki-moon told me: “Captain Piccard, you look like an astronaut”, I could emphasize that protecting the environment was today profitable thanks to the cleantech revolution which is creating new jobs, profit and economic development. We can now stop complaining about problems and finally address solutions.

Crossing the Pacific from Hawaii to San Francisco

April 24th 2016

The images of the Pacific are still dancing before my eyes, and I hope they will continue to do so for a long time. An immense stretch of water with which I rubbed shoulders for 3 days and 2 nights. Thousands of kilometers from the Californian coast, at night, I’d never felt so good, so confident and so serene. I was surprised not to feel the slightest tinge of anxiety. I flew on as if in a dream. The elements escorted me peacefully and the course of time disappeared. I could have stayed there forever, between the sun and the clouds, the moon and the ocean, in this revolutionary airplane, which carried me silently. When the American coast appeared in the distance, it brought me no joy, only a slight feeling of relief. I didn’t want this journey to end. Slowly, very slowly, I flew over the Golden Gate bridge. As the night fell, and my wheels touched down, I didn’t come back to the ground. I could see myself leaving the cockpit, but my mind stayed inside; I thanked the team and greeted the crowd but what I really had in front of my eyes were the moon’s reflections on the vast ocean.

Crossing the Atlantic from New York to Seville

June 23rd 2016

The Atlantic — the ocean of all explorers — saw many sea and air navigators competing in the race to modernity. When Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, it was to promote commercial air transport. For me, the symbol was the same, but the goal different. I wanted to pave the way for a widespread use of modern clean technologies. The urge to succeed became an obsession, but thousands of kilometers and waves still lay ahead of me. At times, I was overwhelmed by bursts of emotion, quickly suppressed by my concentration in the present moment. It was a tactical flight, very different from the royal pathway I had been offered over the Pacific. But it was worth it! The arrival in Seville, being welcomed by the Swiss and Iberian colored smoke of the Spanish Air Force team, was magical. The first transatlantic solar flight was achieved!

Completing the First round-the-world solar flight

July 26th 2016

From the beginning, my goal has been to promote the global implementation of clean technologies for a better quality of life. The way I found to make this attractive and visible was to accomplish the first ever Round-the-World solar flight. I wanted a credible demonstration that renewable energy can achieve the impossible. We have it now.

40'000 km without fuel, a first for energy. I can’t realize I’ve landed, after 13 years since I dreamt of flying around the world with no fuel. But this is just the beginning in order to promote clean technologies. We now have a lot to do, this is why we announced the creation of the International Committee for Clean Technologies.

Bertrand Piccard