Solar Impulse pioneer Bertrand Piccard inspires EUROCONTROL Aviation Sustainability Summit audience

Solar Impulse pioneer Bertrand Piccard inspires EUROCONTROL Aviation Sustainability Summit audience

Aviation pioneers Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg achieved the first flights around the world in a plane solely powered by the sun, demonstrating that flying without a drop of fuel is possible.

At EUROCONTROL’s Aviation Sustainability Summit Bertrand Piccard spoke about the challenge of making this pioneering adventure a reality by creating a revolutionary aircraft capable of taking energy from the sun and storing it in batteries to fire the electric engines of the Solar Impulse plane. He said:

“Airplane constructors laughed at me, saying it takes one minute to calculate that the sun will not give enough energy to have a plane fly day and night. That’s the paradigm in terms of energy today: We only speak of production and not of efficiency.”

It took the Solar Impulse team three years to master this challenge. They solved it by making the wings very wide – wider than a jumbo jet - and the aircraft lighter than a family car.

“The aeroplane industry thought it was impossible. So we had to find someone who did not know it was impossible. And that was a shipyard. When we don’t know something is impossible we have no filter to reinforce our previous certainties. We are completely open for absolutely new solutions and technologies.”

Bertrand Piccard Initiator and Chairman, Solar Impulse Foundation

Not only did the technology solution come from outside the sector, so too did the budget of EUR 170 million. When Piccard speaks about the 15 years of work it took to raise the budget and his initial disappointment that no aircraft manufacturer was on board, the audience could really feel the enormity of the challenges Piccard and his team needed to overcome along the way. For Piccard, the environmental challenge of aviation needs to be addressed without compromising economic growth:

Solar Impulse Foundation

“Everything we use has been invented more than a hundred years ago at the beginning of the oil era. This has to change and it will only change if it is profitable, otherwise people fight against it, will resist and we will go deeper and deeper into the climate crisis. This is why I launched the “Take it Further Challenge” to identify everywhere in the world 1,000 clean solutions that will protect the environment in a financially profitable way.”

One of the most important criteria for these solutions is that they need to exist today, they cannot just be a plan for the future. So far, only a few solutions (such as Skybreath – a software program to reduce fuel consumption) selected by the Solar Impulse Foundation can be used for aviation, but Piccard stresses that there are a lot of decarbonisation solutions that can be used that are not purely about in-flight technology:

Solar Impulse Foundation

“There are many things on the ground that can be done and are financially profitable – such as 'APU OFF'”

whereby power is provided to aircraft on the apron enabling them to continue to run their electrical systems during turn-around without using their own fuel-powered Auxiliary Power Unit (APU).

Food for thought for everyone in the room was Piccard’s warning to all the sceptics who have questioned the feasibility of hydrogen, electric or other new aircraft technologies:

“When the Wright brothers built the first aircraft in Dayton, Ohio, the mayor of the town said “I hope these two young boys will take a serious jobs instead of wasting their time with stupid toys.” Let’s not make the same mistake in aviation today!”

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