HANGAR 19, JFK AIRPORT, NEW YORK — If the world of super-light, environmentally friendly circumnavigation has a superstar, I’m looking at him. Bertrand Piccard was the pilot, with Brian Jones, of the Breitling Orbiter, which, on its third attempt, achieved the first nonstop round-the-world balloon trip in 1999. But now he’s really challenging himself.
With the MIT-trained André Borschberg (pictured at right in the photo below) as co-pilot, Piccard (same photo, at left) has just flown the entirely novel Solar Impulse airplane across the U.S. from San Francisco, with stops in Phoenix, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. Borschberg says the landing in Dallas was dicey because of high winds. “The only way to get to the ground was to keep the The last leg was a bit fraught because of a rip in the thin fabric wing covering on the left side, but the team landed safely on July 6.
The plane (above, heading into Phoenix) is a sight to behold, skinny but tough, like a giant flying praying mantis. It has the wingspan of a jumbo jet but the weight of a VW Bug, just 3,527 pounds. The four electric motors driving the propellers collectively produce only 40 horsepower. No demon racer, the Impulse’s average flying speed is only 43 mph, but it can cruise at 27,000 feet. It’s all solar-covered wings; the pilots are scrunched into a tiny capsule with back-to-back seating, no toilet and only high-performance but lightweight foam insulation from Bayer MaterialScience to guard against flying temperatures that range from minus 40 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Theoretically, the Solar Impulse could stay up indefinitely as long as its photovoltaic panels are seeing sun, but that “no toilet” thing is one indicator of why it has to land periodically. The plane is full of technical wizardry — the structure is carbon fiber sheets that are three times lighter than paper, but super strong. The 11,628 solar cells (covered by a thin, UV-resistant waterproof resin) are only 135 microns, the width of a human hair. The nine lithium-polymer Kokam batteries (lightweight at 882 pounds total and housed in the four motor gondolas) together store 85 kilowatt-hours of solar power. That’s exactly the same battery power as the Tesla Model S.
The Solar Impulse bristles with high tech that will eventually end up on consumer gadgets everybody uses. For instance, the insulating foam is destined for the world’s refrigerators. And the lightweight batteries will have variations in electric cars. Many of us will be applying the cream the pilots use to guard against high-strength UV rays, or wearing the intelligent fibers in their clothes that stabilize body temperature.
It’s unclear what’s next for the Solar Impulse, but a new, tougher plane — with toilets! — is under construction in Europe that will take Piccard and Borschberg around the world — a journey estimated to take five days and five nights and planned for April-July 2015. The pair are training on flight simulators, and getting used to 25-minute power naps. “The plane is sustainable in the air, but the pilot is not,” says Borschberg. “We estimate that the maximum for any one flight is 26 hours. Many human elements have to be taken into account.”
The JFK event was invitation-only, attended primarily by some curious New York grade schoolers. They got to ask the questions, such as, “What do you guys eat with no refrigerator?” The answer — sandwiches and freeze-dried provisions. More centrally, they asked, “How do you fly when the sun isn’t out?” In fact, limited by the energy produced by the solar panels and stored in the batteries, they can’t fly every day. So, like the Wright Brothers, they wait for optimal weather.
Struggle is what builds, says Piccard. “The first time we tried to go around the in a balloon, we came down and the capsule was ruined,” he said. “The second time, again failure. The third time we were successful, and it was a much bigger success than it would have been if we hadn’t failed those other times.”
From that trip another voyage was born. “In the balloon we worried about not having enough propane to finish the trip, so that got us thinking — why not fly with no fuel on board?” Piccard said.
Piccard has Prius and Lexus RX450h hybrids at home in Switzerland. I asked Piccard (at the controls, below) if flying what is in essence a solar electric car with wings makes him more sanguine about EVs. Are we going to see solar cars anytime soon? “The only reason our plane has solar panels is because we can’t refuel in flight,” he said. “On the ground, you don’t need to carry the solar with you — it can be at your home or office, and you recharge there.”
Piccard thinks we may see electric planes in the air fairly soon, though he thinks they’ll be used for light hops and pleasure trips long before they’re capable of carrying passengers on commercial flights. Planes with onboard fuel cells powered by hydrogen are “also a possibility,” though that means having to land to refuel.
Piccard comes from an adventurous family. His grandfather, Auguste, was the first person to pilot a balloon into the stratosphere, and his father, Jacques, was the first (in 1960) to take a bathysphere into the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in the ocean (a feat only equaled by filmmaker James Cameron 50 years later). As a young kid in 1969, Bertrand Piccard was introduced to Charles Lindbergh, and it’s safe to say that the encounter stayed with him. “He was at the end of his life and I was at the beginning of mine,” Piccard said. “He was very friendly.”
Here's a look inside JFK's Hangar 19 at the plane:
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