Just over two weeks ago here in Seville, a world first was achieved at San Pablo airport.
One warm June morning, hundreds of people watched in awe as a very wide, very light and very quiet aeroplane elegantly and unhurriedly landed on a runway to the south of the main airport.
The plane was pulled towards its temporary hangar by people riding electric bicycles. For this was no ordinary aeroplane, and it was no ordinary flight. This was the first ever solar-powered plane to cross the Atlantic. The first-ever aircraft with no fuel, and no emissions, running solely on electricity provided by the sun.
When the pilot of Solar Impulse 2 (known as Si2) opened his cockpit door wearing his orange jacket, to be greeted by his fellow adventurer, this was the first time he had left the cockpit, or even stood up, in nearly three days and 6,765km.
In an unpressurized, unheated cabin, with a seat that doubled as a privy, eating meals out of specially-made food sacs, and taking 20-minute catnaps and meditation breaks, Swiss doctor Bertrand Piccard had brought this extraordinary clean and green machine to Europe from the New World. Landing shortly after 7.30am on 23 June, having taken off from New York’s JFK airport on 20 June, his flight took 71 hours and 8 minutes.
While in itself a historic flight, the crossing was just one stage of a 35,000km round-the-world trip to spread the word about using alternative fuels, and creating a cleaner, greener world. Last year, Piccard’s fellow Si2 pilot – they never fly together, as it’s a one-seater – and the plane’s designer, engineer Andre Borschberg, flew from Japan to Hawaii, a flight that lasted five days and five nights, setting a new World Record for the longest solo plane flight.
As Piccard explained during the morning’s events to celebrate the flight, the Solar Impulse project aims to “push the boundaries of human potential” and is “committed to changing the world and improving the planet”. The high-tech plane was built with cutting-edge materials, and needs careful maintenance after every leg of the journey. Solar Impulse is a Swiss-based project, with its mission control in Monaco.
Doctor, pilot and adventurer Bertrand Piccard – first pilot of a solar Atlantic crossing
“Five hundred years ago, Christopher Columbus sailed to America [departing from near Seville]. Well some day, someone had to come back,” said a clearly delighted Piccard to laughter when he climbed down from the cockpit and set foot on Spanish soil. “The Atlantic has always been a symbol of going from the Old World to the New World, and everybody has tried to cross the Atlantic with sailboats, steamboats, airships, airplanes, balloons… even rowing boats and kitesurfs.
“Today it was a solar-powered airplane for the first time ever, flying electric with no fuel and no pollution. But what has changed is that the Old World and the New World are not geographic continents any more. They are states of mind. The old state of mind is what we have to leave behind – the world of pollution, depletion of natural resources, old devices that caused climate change and CO2 problems.
“The New World is the world of modern, clean technologies, of respect for the environment, of innovation, of pioneers. The future is clean and it starts now.”
With a wingspan a little wider than a Boeing 747 (72m to 68m), and weighing the same as a medium-sized car (2.3 tons), this is a perfectly balanced piece of vanguard engineering technology. The 3.8m2 cockpit is made of polyurethane – extremely light while being highly resistant, while the windscreen is also very strong but lightweight – polycarbonate which can withstand high impact, while having the visual quality of glass.
These materials were developed for the plane by one of Solar Impulse’s partners, Altran, using existing technology – the polyurethane can be used to make fridges 10% more energy-efficient, as Covestro’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Richard Northcote told me. Insulation is essential for the cockpit, with no heating, as temperatures drop to -40 when you’re at 8,500m (25,000 feet), the height of Mount Everest.
The plane is powered by four 17.4hp-propellers, each with its own 100kg-battery (a considerable proportion of the aircraft’s total weight) which is powered in turn by the sun’s energy – the wings are equipped with 17,000 photovoltaic solar cells. The casing for these batteries is essential, and one of the biggest challenges which the project has faced was on the Japan-Hawaii leg when the batteries overheated. When the plane was in its hangar in Seville, cheek by jowl with journalists at the press conference, green tubes attached to the batteries were being used to cool them down.
One of the most important developments in the technology for this plane, is that it is capable of flying at night – the energy absorbed by the solar cells and converted into electricity can be stored in the batteries and used even when the sun isn’t shining. During the day, the plane flies at around 70km/h – by comparison, a Boeing 747 flies at 900km/h.
It’s not surprising that this project has already broken several records: the first plane to fly night and day using only solar energy, in 2010 – Si1, the first Solar Impulse aircraft, as well as the longest solo flight in an aeroplane on the Japan-Hawaii leg.
Yoga, meditation and nutrition
So how do the pilots manage to switch off and rest for their 20-minute breaks (an alarm goes off if the plane’s stabilisation system changes more than 5 degrees of direction)? Both Piccard and Borschberg are aficionados of yoga, self-hypnosis and meditation – essential when you’re on your own for three or even five days. In constant contact with their mission control in Monaco, doing interviews, tweeting and taking selfies, they’re closely monitored for signs of fatigue or slow reactions. and have to do four vigilance tests per day. The crucial 12 rests per 24 hours, on a seat that reclines completely, are essential for maintaining full concentration and alertness.
“The mindset is very important,” Borschberg tells me as we ride the bus from the airport security gate to the viewing point to watch the plane land – none of the other (Spanish) journalists speak English, so I get an “exclusive interview” with the charming, indeed dashing, aviator.
“When you board a plane, it’s a privilege. I knew [the Japan-Hawaii flight] would be something special. I thought five days and five nights wasn’t long enough – six days would have been better! To explore the unknown makes an amazing experience.”
Borschberg is an advocate of the benefits of mindfulness. “You’re living in the present moment,” he says. “There’s no pressure to arrive on time.”
In January, he went on a silent retreat for 10 days, to prepare himself mentally for the US legs of the journey, starting in March.
“You encounter so many obstacles,” he says. “It creates a new situation each time. If you have enough awareness, you can see that each obstacle offers an opportunity, so you’re not bothered by them.”
Talking about the Atlantic leg, Piccard said “It was an experience of three days and three nights in a new world – a world of nature. The life of the ocean, different colours, waves, clouds, shapes, sunrise, sunset. It’s a world of adventure and exploration – you have no idea what’s going to happen next. You have an acute awareness of the present moment, of the natural world, and also of the technological world.”
Having the correct diet is also essential: the pilot has 11 meals per day – 2.4kg of food in total, as well as 2.5l of water and 1l of sports drinks. While he can’t move around, being at high altitudes is very physically tiring. The pilot has two types of food, below 3500m and above 3500m – all are freshly made by hand in a special kitchen, without preservatives, and with some organic ingredients.
Above 3500m, the meals are high in protein, such as carrot soup – with his oxygen mask on, the pilot needs food that can be easily digested. When the plane descends below 3500m, as reward, he gets a more filling, hot carb-based meal – potato gratin, for example, to help him warm up.
The original list of possible destinations for the Atlantic crossing also included Paris and Toulouse, but Seville won out because of its fine weather – usually clear and sunny in June. But another important motive was Andalucia’s leading role in developing sustainable energy sources, such as the ground-breaking Solar Power Tower near Sanlucar La Mayor among others, as well as its aviation industry, which goes back to an aeroplane called Jesus del Gran Poder crossing the Atlantic to Brazil in 1929, taking under 45 hours.
I asked Bertrand what he thought of Prime Minster Rajoy’s “tax on the sun”, whereby individuals are penalised for producing energy from photovoltaic panels for their own domestic use.
“In the 1920s car were prohibited; people didn’t want to dig tunnels for trains because they thought passengers would die when they went through them.
“People have always had strange views. There’s a temptation to limit development for the future,” was his response. What a shame the Spanish government isn’t as fearlessly forward thinking and concerned about the environment.
The round-the-world journey
Total estimated distance: 35,000 km
Total estimated flying days: 25
Total estimated flying time: 500 hours
March to July 2015: Abu Dhabu – Muscat – Ahmedabad – Varanasi – Mandalay – Chongqing – Nanjing – Nagoya – Hawaii
March to July 2016: Hawaii – San Francisco – Phoenix – Tulsa – Dayton – Lehigh Valley – New York – Seville – *planned* Cairo
Each flight is carefully planned and monitored by engineers who keep a close eye on the aircraft’s technical data; mathematicians, who take into account meteorological data, sunshine and air traffic; and meterorologists, who analyse weather forecasts to find the best route, with the date and time of each departure not being confirmed until a few days before.
Says Piccard, “For years they thought it was impossible – how can you cross the Atlantic using clean renewable technology? We have shown that you can achieve the impossible.” Borschberg reckons we may see small commercial solar aircraft, for around 50 passengers, in as little as 10 years.
Si2 is scheduled to leave Seville on Sunday night/Monday morning, with Cairo as its destination, crossing eight countries – Borschberg will be at the controls.