By Neil Shea, for National Geographic

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates—Early on Monday, if the desert wind rushing toward the Strait of Hormuz lays down and dawn comes in clear and bright, a very large and odd-looking experimental aircraft will lift off from a military airport in Abu Dhabi, turn east toward the rising sun, and take a run at history.

On board will be a single pilot, for the cockpit is too small, and too cramped, to carry more. He will steer through morning quietly and quite slowly—faster than a running man, but far slower than, say, a Vespa scooter driven by a guy who’s late for work.

From below, his aircraft will resemble a toy, with enormous, stiff wings jutting out of a short, thin fuselage, and stabilizers at the tail that are as blunt as pegs on a pogo stick.

As the plane begins to climb, almost imperceptibly, the impression will be of an object set adrift more than one purposefully driven. By contrast, almost any aircraft it meets, even certain thumb-toggled drones, will seem like overachievers.


With altitude, however, the plane comes into its own. Seen from above, in thin, calm air, its lines suggest an albatross or a condor, strong of shoulder, built for distance. And the reasons for the craft’s oddity become clearer, too: Nearly every sun-facing surface, from wingtips to rudder, gleams with blue-black photovoltaic cells. The plane is called the Solar Impulse 2, and the Swiss explorers who built it, Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, intend to be the first to fly around the world propelled only by the power of light.

Heading first to India, next to China, and then on to the United States, their journey will last some five months, with many stops along the way. During the longest legs of their flight, over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the men will remain in the air for days, beyond reach of runways, islands, or easy rescue. They will face dangerous, unpredictable weather over wide-open water, same as a host of earlier adventurers, many of whom never returned.

The goal, though, is not speed or risk but technological and entrepreneurial statement. Built almost entirely of custom-made, ultralight carbon, with advanced batteries, solar cells, and electric motors, the Solar Impulse 2 will be able to do what has never been done by a piloted, light-powered craft—stay aloft through the night, across vast distances over land and sea. It is, in theory, a plane that might fly forever.

“The airplane is special not because it is solar, but because it is efficient,” Piccard told me recently in a cavernous hangar on Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen airfield. “It is efficient at harnessing energy, at storing energy, and at using energy.”

Outside the hangar a jet rolled loudly past, battering the windows with dust and boiling fumes. Piccard took the cue and said, “My plane will never do that.” He smiled toward the Solar Impulse 2, sitting behind us, gray and delicate, suspended in a steel cradle. “What we have here,” Piccard said, “is the future.”
Becoming a Visionary

Piccard, a psychiatrist by training who regularly practices self-hypnosis, often uses “future” to describe a kind of hyper “present,” not something that will arrive one day but that is available now, in progressive stages of discovery.

If this sounds a bit cliché, Piccard will only draw encouragement from your doubt, just as he did 12 years ago when many experts in the aviation industry said his plans for a 21,000-mile (33,800-kilometer) light-powered flight were impossible.

Piccard is of average height, slender and fine-boned with blue-gray eyes and impressive posture for a man who has spent so much time wedged into flying machines. He is the son and grandson of explorers who, during the past century, broke records while investigating the ocean’s depths and the atmosphere’s heights using submersibles and balloons they designed themselves.

When he was a boy, his family lived for a time in West Palm Beach, Florida, near Cape Canaveral, while his father, Jacques, worked with the U.S. Navy. Jacques’s friends and associates included rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and many others involved in the American space program.

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first astronauts to walk on the moon, visited the Piccard home. Another astronaut, Scott Carpenter, dropped in at Bertrand’s 12th birthday party. Piccard said he learned not to ask too many questions of the astronauts, who had wearied of the constant inquiry of strangers and the press. Instead, he says, he simply listened. The past century’s greatest adventurers wandered, unguarded, through his living room. Why should he interrupt?

“I only ever asked Neil Armstrong one question about the moon,” Piccard said. It was years later; the men had become friends. “I asked, ‘Did you receive any kind of psychological training, anything to prepare you for such a huge thing as being first man on the moon?'”

Armstrong said no one had ever asked that before. “No,” he told Piccard. “I was a test pilot. We didn’t talk about stuff like that.” Read more…


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