Mission possible: Bertrand Piccard completes historic round-the-world solar flight

The pilot lands in Abu Dhabi as the first man to fly 40,000km around the world without fuel in a solar powered aircraft. How did he do it? The record breaker shared his training plans with Vision before his astonishing quest

Bertrand Piccard is a man with an impulse. He wanted to fly around the world. But, not wanting to make it too easy on himself, his ambition was to do it in a solar-powered plane, the Solar Impulse 2.

On Monday, July 25 as he touched down in Abu Dhabi with co-pilot André Borschberg and a large support crew he was the first to achieve this landmark in aviation history. Sceptics doubted his chances. There’s a lot that can go wrong 9,000 metres up, in an unpressurised cabin, flying an aircraft with no fuel; but Piccard – who comes from a family of adventurers – has form. In 1999, the Swiss aviator achieved a world first, by completing a non-stop circumnavigation of the earth, in a balloon, the Breitling Orbiter 3.

We trained 72 hours in a row in a flight simulator and reached a steady level of alertness. We could have [kept going], sleeping two hours for every cycle of 24

Many other notable attempts had failed; Piccard and co-balloonist Brian Jones did not. The physical endurance and mental discipline needed to concentrate for weeks at a time, have not left him. Solar Impulse sounds like an adventure, an energy-drink stunt, but there’s more to it than that. It’s an endeavour to bring together science, exploration and inspiration, to achieve what was once  deemed impossible.

It’s a philosophy that seems to be in his blood – Piccard is the third generation in a family of scientist-explorers. His grandfather Auguste Piccard was a noted physicist and explorer who ascended to record-breaking heights to measure cosmic rays, invented the bathyscaphe (an early submersible), and was the inspiration behind Professor Calculus in the Tintin adventures. Meanwhile, Bertrand’s father Jacques was a pioneering ecologist and one of the first oceanographers to visit the deepest parts of the ocean floor, the Mariana Trench.

Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot André Borschberg
Bertrand Piccard and his co-pilot André Borschberg circumnavigated the globe using solar power. Piccard had already completed a non-stop circumnavigation of the earth, in the 'Breitling Orbiter 3' balloon

“The impossible takes time,” said a lighthearted Piccard. “It’s more than a project; it has become a part of our lives. An adventure, without being scientific, is not interesting for me. I’m not the guy who wants to run up mountains, or run across the desert. I like to fly and for this you need science.”

When Vision met him in early May, he was visiting Dubai on a scouting mission, certain he would like Solar Impulse 2 to start and end its journey in the UAE.

“The UAE is a country that has a vision,” he told us. “It’s where they also achieve the impossible. When you see the new Dubai World Central airport, Masdar [Abu Dhabi’s low-carbon city] and Expo 2020, all this shows the fabulous innovative spirit they have here. It’s clear that this is the place where we’d like to take off.”

The timing and UAE location allowed Solar Impulse 2 to make the most of the northern summer and traverse India before the monsoons set in. The journey wasn't non-stop with 17 legs, although that is more a limitation of pilot endurance, rather than the aircraft’s.

plane  carbon fibre sheets
The plane is built from carbon fibre sheets and has a wingspan of 72m (around 12m longer than the wingspan of a Boeing 747)

“[In flight] we will rest for 20 minutes and fly for four hours,” said Piccard. “We can take 20-minute naps; if you take more, you are a little bit out of it when you wake up.”

The legs over water saw the solo flyers in the air for up to a week. To endure these long spells of sleep deprivation, as well as the 80°C temperature swings, the pilots prepared themselves with relaxation techniques that includes yoga-influenced breathing and self-hypnosis.

“It’s fascinating to see how, with hypnosis, you can keep your mind alert but completely rest your body,” said Piccard, who is also a qualified psychiatrist. “We trained 72 hours in a row in a flight simulator and reached a steady level of alertness. We could have [kept going], sleeping two hours for every cycle of 24.”

Waypoints included India, Myanmar and China, before crossing the Pacific to Hawaii and on to the American continent. The flight across North America had a dry run in 2013, when the aircraft’s first prototype travelled from San Francisco to New York. From there was the next oceanic crossing, the Atlantic, and then the final legs back to the start line in the UAE.

Stops allowed for a change of pilot and a tech-check of the aircraft. All along the route was regularly recalculated as the team looked for the optimum combination of wind, temperature and sunlight. They tested the plan in 2014 using a computer simulator that mimics real-time weather conditions.

“The optimal speed for energy consumption, in terms of efficiency, is 25 knots (45kph),” explained Piccard. “This creates the most lift with the least drag. If there’s too much wind coming from the front, you go backward. I flew backward for an hour and a half coming from Morocco to Spain.

Betrand Piccard
"You don’t have to refuel. This is what makes the aeroplane so fabulous, the more you fly, the more energy you have"

“It’s a flight where duration is more important than speed. If you cannot land tomorrow, you can land later. You don’t have to refuel. This is what makes the aeroplane so fabulous, the more you fly, the more energy you have.”

While the first prototype was built with what Piccard describes as “yesterday’s technology”, the second version is built with “tomorrow’s”. He cited the batteries, invented by Kokam, as an example of the improvements made.

“The bottle neck for the project is the energy efficiency,” he said. “We need to consume very little energy and store the maximum. When we started the project the batteries had 160kW per kilo. The energy density has since increased to 260kW per kilo.”

While such project-specific technology is sometimes of little everyday use, Piccard explained that the clean technology inventions and innovations made for Solar Impulse 2 are already having a wider impact.

“The technologies we have on Solar Impulse, we can make available for every-body,” he said. “What I love with clean technologies is that it is the first time in history that the protection of the environment and the protection of natural resources has become profitable. But we need industry to understand that and we also need leaders to really go for it.”