Day 6

Flying around the world without any fuel on the Solar Impulse 2

This week, the Solar Impulse 2 made history when it became the first plane to successfully circle the globe powered only by renewable energy. Andre Borschberg, one of the two pilots who made the trip, tells Brent Bambury about the five days he spent crossing the Pacific.
Solar Impulse 2 approaches Abu Dhabi and the last stop of the first around the world flight without the use of fuel. (Jean Revillard/Solar Impulse2via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, in the pitch black of the Arabian night, Bertrand Piccard brought an experimental airplane in for landing. It touched down and rolled towards a crowd of people waiting on the tarmac of the Al Batin Airport in Abu Dhabi.  Before the door could open and before the cheers could start, Piccard had one more mission: with great precision, he stopped the plane on the exact spot that it started its round the world journey in March 2015.

With that landing, Solar Impulse 2 became the first plane to successfully circle the globe powered only by renewable energy.

Pilots Andre Borschberg (L) and Bertrand Piccard (R) wave during a press conference after the Solar Impulse 2 aircraft landed at Al Batin Airport in Abu Dhabi. (KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

André Borschberg was in the cockpit 15 months earlier when Solar Impulse 2 took off for the first leg of its record-breaking flight. And as he tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, it's still too soon to put the accomplishment in perspective.

"I did not realize what was happening and I think I still do not realize now. When you work years with such an ambitious goal, you have to take it step by step. I still feel like I'm running to the next one but I should stop and slow down," he says.

An ambitious goal

The Solar Impulse 2 is more than an airplane. It's also an experiment, a mission and a message. The two men who took turns piloting the plane around the world are the same two people who piloted the project from the start.

Bertrand Piccard, 58, and Andre Borschberg, 63, believed a plane could make this trip but it wasn't easy convincing others. To start, they needed a plane specially designed to travel 42-thousand kilometres with zero fuel. It had to be light and loaded with as many solar panels as they could fit.

The result is an odd-looking plane with a wider wingspan than a Boeing 747. It's covered in 17,248 solar cells and weighs just 2,300 kg, or about the same as a family sedan.

To keep it as light as possible, the cockpit is roughly the size of a phone booth pushed on its side and designed for only one pilot at a time.  With all the flying and living necessities crammed in, there's not a lot of space.

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg spent a combined 500 flight hours in this cockpit. Borschberg even managed to do some light yoga. (Solar Impulse 2)


Yoga over the Pacific

On June 29, 2015, Borschberg took off from Nagoya, Japan for what would be 117 hours and 52 minutes in the air. Easily the longest, continuous leg of the journey. The 8,924 km is now the world record for flying distance in a solar plane.

"I didn't know if a pilot could sustain such a long flight but that is the thrilling part" he says.  But five days over the Pacific ocean in an experimental aircraft is not without danger. Borschberg says he planned for the worst and hoped for the best.

"You know, everyday I talked to the ocean. I would say if I have to come down, I am sure you will welcome me and treat me well," he says. "You have to create an attitude and a positive feeling to be able to put the anxiety away and concentrate on what you're doing"  

Borschberg allowed himself irregular naps of no--more than 20-minutes at a time. He also did yoga in the small cockpit.

"I did yoga and meditation every morning. I could practice some postures. It's important to keep the body functioning and the mind at ease". 

Solar Impulse 2's journey covered 42-thousand kilometres, four continents, three seas, two oceans and set eight new world records. (Solar Impulse 2)


Downed for 10 months

Borschberg's nearly 5-day flight was a success. He arrived in Hawaii healthy and happy but the plane had suffered serious damage.  

Shortly after landing, the pilots announced that their plane had to be grounded. The record-breaking flight caused irreversible damage to certain parts of the batteries and required months worth of repairs.

It also forced the Solar Impulse team to raise more than $20,000,000 in additional funds to cover the costs.

Piccard and Borschberg's mission would stayed paused with 22,481 km left to travel until April 21, 2016.

A new drone for the future

Solar Impulse 2's journey is over and it's time for the pilots to rest, reflect and think about what's next.  Borschberg says that is likely to be solar powered drones.

"We will be using this technology to develop electric airplanes in the futures and develop solar drones that can fly in the stratosphere for six months replacing satellites".

Piccard and Borschberg hope to have their drones in the air within the next three years.

To hear Brent Bambury's conversation with André Borschberg from the Solar Impulse 2 flight centre in Monaco, hit the listen button at the top of the page.