FEATURE: Here comes the sun – The Solar Impulse makes preparations for the flight home

Described by Al Gore as a ‘historic adventurer’ round-the-world pilot André Borschberg talks to Abu Dhabi Week as the epic Solar Impulse voyage looks to get back on track to the UAE capital…

When you invest well over a decade of your life attempting to inspire people to change the way they live, imagine how you would feel if all those efforts were almost literally going down in flames, right before your eyes.

The resulting inferno of emotions must have been exactly what André Borschberg was wrestling with last July. André is co-pilot of the Solar Impulse 2, an ambitious long-range experimental solar-powered aircraft. It took off from Al Bateen Airport in Abu Dhabi in March last year, with the aim of circumnavigating the globe powered only by the sun’s rays.

The leap of human scientific endeavour, and of human endurance, was first mooted in the early 2000s, with the first test flight in 2009.

Fast forward to last summer and after roughly 19,000km of cumulated distance flown, over 200 hours flight time and 9,370 simulations, the whole undertaking was thrown into jeopardy.

That was when the already record-obliterating Solar Impulse 2 suffered damage to perhaps the most important element of a solar powered machine – the battery – on the Pacific leg from Japan to Hawaii. 

It is a malfunction, which has seen the 63m wingspan aircraft grounded in Hawaii since then. Resolving to continue, the delay has however, added an estimated AED 80 million bill to the already swollen price tag of the 7,212 km pioneering venture.

Talking to Abu Dhabi Week, the engineer, entrepreneur and former Air Force Pilot admits that it was decisions that he made at the controls which directly led to the mission-threatening failure. He also reveals it was not the only hairy moment about that flight.

“There were two situations which were critical,” he begins to explain. “Leaving the coast of Japan after a few hours one of the most important pieces of equipment that we need to work on board was not working properly. So the engineers told me that we have to return to Japan – there was no way to continue.”

But realising that they had a rare window of good weather for the five-day and five-night journey ahead, André and his co-pilot psychiatrist and explorer Bertrand Piccard, decided to push on.

“All the engineers were totally against me… The first day was very hard and also hard for me because I knew my family was watching. I really had to ask myself if I had the right to put so much emotional [strain] on them for so many days.”

This decision proved fortuitous though as the window of good weather was rapidly closing behind them.

“If we had not left Japan then the monsoon would have destroyed the plane.”

That instinct though doesn’t always pay off. “Then we had the problem of the battery. It is not so much a problem of the technology of the battery; the technology of the battery is extremely good,” André explains.

“When I left Japan again I had to do a test flight and the test flight was climbing very fast to high altitude, so discharging the batteries very quickly and then going down recharging to reuse the battery again using the sun… Then of course I had to continue to fly for five days, five nights. The sum of all these cycles lead to an increase in temperature of the batteries which went over the limit,” says André.

“So, in some ways it was self-inflicted because the aeroplane was not designed to do a test flight, immediately followed by the mission flight.

Resolute not to see the grounding as a failure but as a learning curve, André and team will begin testing this month. If everything goes well, they have set a date of 28th April to take off on the long journey back to Abu Dhabi.

André is keen to point out the technology is proven and their mission has already broken previous known boundaries of solar flight.

The ability to overcome major set backs has to be one of the key character traits for a duo of pilots and their team of engineers who are trying to prove to the world that green energy is the only viable option for the future of human kind. It is also the sort of resilience needed for long flights in cramped and claustrophobic conditions where you are only afforded a maximum of 20 minutes sleep at a time.

André uses yoga and other techniques to manage the stress and fatigue of some of the longest flights: “It’s a question of mental attitude. It’s a question of mindset. Instead of asking myself, if I would be able to do it, ‘Would anything go wrong?’ ‘How would I really cope  with the fatigue?’ I went into the aeroplane thinking that five days, five nights was very short to make the flight of my dreams.”

The Solar Impulse project is partnered with Masdar Institute. And before André has even resumed the mission back to Abu Dhabi, true to character, he is calling on Masdar Institute and other academics to get working on the next step in the evolution of solar flight.

“I think something that we could potentially do in Abu Dhabi is if you look at these technologies and what it could lead to is to build high altitude drones, something that would fly six months above the airliners in the atmosphere to be observation communication measurements and very simply replacing satellites. It would be more sustainable, more flexible and very simple. It would be a great project starting now and using our expertise and technology towards the future.”

The Solar Impulse project has notched up an incredible eight new world records and pushed past what was thought possible. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, André explained however, that the true achievement was not in technological advancement or even feats of human endurance, but in changing a mindset he and Bertrand believe is ultimately limiting mankind.

“When you hear people talking about an ambitious plan to develop renewable energy, develop clean technologies, you will very often hear people say, it’s impossible. That is exactly what we heard 12 years ago.”

“We had to do it in a different way, develop a different kind of organisation with different values and a different mindset.”

“We pushed the limit of the technologies but what was important was to push our  own limits as engineers, as human beings.”

Co-pilot Bertrand uses the metaphor of his previous around-the-world balloon flight to explain their outlook. The balloon would fly slowly until it gained altitude and high level winds would see it soar.

“In life you also have to drop ballast and our ballast is our certitudes, our paradigms, our beliefs. All the things that keep us heavy. We believe it makes us stronger, but if it is wrong it makes us heavy. When we throw it overboard then we can start to explore all of the different directions.”

“Freedom is when we can think everything and have all the options open.”

WORDS Julian Pletts

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