Swiss psychiatrist and aeronaut Bertrand Piccard,
who in 1999 co-piloted the first balloon to circle the world
non-stop, has again made aviation history.
Alternating with his partner and compatriot, Andre Borschberg, he flew an airplane across the United States - in six stages from May 3 to July 6 - using only solar power.
Their Solar Impulse HB-SIA, with a wingspan equal to that of an Airbus A340 but weighing no more than an average car, is equipped with 11,628 photovoltaic cells that power four electric motors averaging 8 horsepower each.
Piccard, 55, initiator and chairman of the Solar Impulse venture, said the aircraft's technical details were less important than its renewable-energy message. He recently sat down for a question-and-answer session with dpa.
Q: You've just flown, in over two months, from San Francisco to New York in a solar-powered airplane. Don't you know there are scheduled flights?
A: (laughs) Yes, there are flights! But milestones have always been part of aviation history, prototypes with only the pilot on board that have enabled us to shape the future. Each time, it was thought to be impossible until someone did it. It's exactly the same with Solar Impulse!
Flying across the United States without using a drop of fuel was a milestone. To recall Charles Lindbergh and his solo transatlantic flight: There were plenty of ships at the time that travelled quickly and smoothly across the Atlantic Ocean. And today it's perfectly normal to fly.
We didn't set out to replace normal airliners with Solar Impulse. We wanted to demonstrate that even current technology enables mankind to consume much less, and above all more sensible, energy.
Q: So you want to promote solar energy more than a solar airplane?
A: Yes. We want to show how far clean technologies have come. An airplane is the best vehicle for this because it's exciting. If the technology we've got in this airplane were now used everywhere, we could reduce mankind's energy consumption by half! And we could get half of the remainder from renewable energy sources.
Q: You plan to fly around the world with solar power in 2015. Also in stages?
A. Yes. We're going to fly in stages again, each four to six days long. We'll design the plane so the pilot can endure six days in the cockpit. Along with an autopilot and protection against UV radiation, that naturally includes a toilet. But again, just one pilot will fly.
Q. You and your partner, Andre Borschberg, alternately piloted this airplane. A co-pilot was as much out of the question as cargo. Will the day come when a passenger flies with solar power, say from Zurich to Berlin?
A. I'd be crazy if I said yes and stupid if I said no. Today's technology does allow only one pilot in the cockpit. If we look at the history of aviation, though, less than 100 years separate the Wright brothers from as many as 400, 500, 600 people in an airplane.
We at Solar Impulse aim to be pioneers. We want to open doors; others can deal with marketability later. It's not passengers we want to transport, but a message: that the technology exists to live with clean energies, and create jobs as well.
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