Solar Impulse is the brainchild of Borschberg’s project partner, Swiss psychiatrist Bertrand Piccard, a compact, 56-year-old adventurer with a history of pulling off daring long-distance journeys. In 1999, Piccard and a co-pilot completed the first-ever nonstop balloon flight around the world. They took off in the Swiss Alps with 28 full tanks of propane; when they touched down in central Egypt almost 20 days later, little more than a quarter of a tank remained.
“There was this big anxiety of being short of gas before the end of the flight,” Piccard remembers. Next time, he thought, wouldn’t it be nice to circle the globe without keeping an eye on the fuel gauge?
It was no idle question. Piccard was bored with depressing discussions about the state of the environment and wanted to change the perception that living sustainably means using ugly lightbulbs and cutting out pollution-producing travel. His piercing blue eyes were fixed on a high-tech future that was both efficient and exciting. That vision took the form of a plane that could fly around the world using only the power of the sun.
In 2003, Piccard sought advice from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. He needed a partner who knew the technological limits of flight — and was willing to push them. The dean of the institute’s engineering school knew just the guy to spearhead Piccard’s pie-in-the-sky project: André Borschberg, a mechanical engineer with a business degree and a track record of risky start-ups. “It was a little bit crazy,” Borschberg says, thinking back on the initial proposal. “But I like these situations where you don’t know how to get to the goal.” And quite a goal it was: designing a plane light enough to run on solar energy alone, but strong enough to carry pilots, provisions and batteries storing energy to fly through the night.
Piccard is used to people calling his projects crazy, but he thinks the status quo is crazier. “What is really crazy is to continue to burn 1 million tons of [fossil fuel] every hour, and to believe that we can have a good future with that,” he says. “Flying with a solar-powered airplane is much less crazy.”