Swiss businessman and pilot André Borschberg, along with colleague and compatriot Bertrand Piccard, completed an epic quest this week — flying around the world in an aircraft powered only by the sun.
Their journey started 16 months earlier, in March 2015. Their plane, Solar Impulse 2, took off from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and, as the pilots took it in turns to fly the single-seated giant, made its way across India and China.
From Japan, Mr. Borschberg then piloted the plane across the Pacific on a trip that lasted more than four days, the longest uninterrupted flight on record.
But when it landed in Hawaii, the plane was grounded for nine months because of a defective battery. With the project on the verge of failure, repairs were finally made and the epic journey continued across the United States and then on to Europe, North Africa and back to Abu Dhabi.
“It’s important that all engine manufacturers recognize that electric motors have a far higher rate of efficiency.”
In all, the solar flight totalled 43,041 kilometers (26,744 miles) and 558 hours.
Mr. Borschberg and Mr. Piccard founded the Solar Impulse project in 2010 with little financing. But with each hour of flight, the project attracted more and more interest. Even companies with little involvement in the technology took pleasure in putting advertising banners on the 70-meter wings – for example, French champagne maker Moët & Chandon.
After completing the record solar flight, Mr. Borschberg took time out for an interview with Handelsblatt.
Mr. Borschberg, how does it feel to fly through the clouds over the Pacific at only 70 kph (44 mph)?
It was a privilege that fills me with pride. When I was flying, I constantly looked out the window at the rising sun and the wings of our aircraft. And I repeatedly thought: The sun alone is providing the energy keeping me aloft. I can tell you for sure – that’s an extraordinary feeling.
On the flight from Japan to Hawaii, you even broke a record with the four days you spent in the air covering a distance of 7,200 kilometers …
… It was even more than 7,200 kilometers, if you include the holding patterns. I didn’t want to land!
But then you had to take a nine-month break. You and your team had to redevelop the battery technology from scratch, because the energy storage unit overheated.
That was a bitter disappointment. But only at the beginning, because it became a matter of motivation.
What do you mean?
There are always problems and obstacles that you encounter without having an immediate answer. But when you’re faced with difficulties, utterly new situations arise. They allow you to discover new ways of approaching the problem. That’s what Volkswagen should do …
… Because of its diesel emissions scandal?
Yes. Management should make use of the difficulty in handling the accusations of manipulation. It is a perfect opportunity to create a different mindset across the organization. In that sense, the VW scandal is a gigantic opportunity.
Do you believe that some day a car could be powered only with solar energy?
It’s important that all engine manufacturers recognize that electric motors have a far higher rate of efficiency. Our airplane was so efficient for that reason as well. In a second step, thought could be given to where the energy for electric car motors comes from.
The grandfather of your co-pilot, Bertrand Piccard, said back in 1943 that solar energy must replace engines powered by fossil fuel as quickly as possible. When will we get there?
Who knows? But Airbus has already tested a hybrid aircraft, and U.S. startups even have solar-powered drones. It’s a pleasure to see that the industry is moving in the right direction.
Ozan Demircan covers the insurance industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org