Interview: Andre Borschberg of “Planet Power” and Solar Impulse

Posted on March 29, 2018 at 2:54 pm

“Planet Power,” is a stunning documentary about the round-the-world flight of the Solar Impulse, the first-ever plane completely powered by sunlight to circle the globe. It is now in IMAX theaters across the country. It was developed and piloted by two Frenchmen, Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard.

What did you learn about the world by flying over it that way that you didn’t know before?

Lots of things! But first of all it’s an incredible experience when you look about the airplane and you see the sun and you see the sun rays and then you start thinking that these rays and this radiation is sufficient to make the airplane fly, to climb and fly through the night. It’s absolutely incredible. Normally you always have an eye on the fuel gauge and then you know you only have a few minutes to go and then you have to land. So to think that you have an indefinite unlimited endurance, it’s a totally different world. Of course the entire project was incredible in the sense that we were told by the aviation industry that to build such an airplane was not possible. We were convinced on our side that there was a solution so we decided to do it ourselves. These fifteen years were a sequence of hurdles, of success, of difficulties and all this done with a fantastic team; so it’s a life experience.

I imagine that it was very quiet there because you didn’t have the humming of the engines. Is that right?

It is. If you have a chance to fly in an electric airplane, you will see how quiet it is because you don’t hear much, there’s no vibration. It’s like being in a glider which suddenly can climb like a normal plane. And in this plane I was alone. We will have a two-seater flying this summer in Switzerland and my goal is really to take lots of people in this airplane just to see the difference. The experience is something else.

One of the things that really captured my attention in the movie was that while a passenger plane can tip to a degree of 30 degrees this plane because of the size of its wings was much more limited. Did that make it difficult to maneuver?

What was tricky was the sensitivity of the airplane towards turbulence and this is why we also always try to take off very early and land late at night so we’re away from the turbulences created by the sun during the day. So that is certainly one characteristic of the airplane. On the other side, as I said, we have this freedom to be away from the clock and having the possibility if necessary to be one more day in the air when I flew across the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii, we thought it would take 5 days than have taken 6; I would say even so much the better because of the incredible experience but to have this feeling of no limit on the energy, of course, it’s a major plus.

The movie explains that you come from a family with a history of innovation. What did they do to influence you to become an innovator yourself?

When I was a really young kid I was taken by the books I read about the aviation pioneers, about what they did, about their lives, about the way they went about trying, exploring, building something that nobody did and then flying without having been coached by a flight instructor on how to do that. For me this created a strong dream and appeal in fact to be part of this world as well; so when I met in fact Bertrand a few years later, it was like getting into this world I’ve been dreaming about when I was a young boy.

Tell me a little bit about more about the partnership with Mr. Piccard, what is it that each of you contribute to that partnership?

Bertrand and I basically had different educations; we have different backgrounds and skills and at the end we were extremely complementary as a partnership through these differences. It’s one plus one equals three; one for each and one when we’re together. In that sense we are truly different but we understood that this difference was a source of creativity so very early we gave up basically the tendency to argue and to try to defend own ideas and we were more interested when we were not having basically the same understanding of a situation. I think we were always interested to understand what the other was thinking, knowing that at the end the solutions would be neither his solution nor mine. So regularly once every two weeks, once every month we would sit down and expose our feelings to the other one to try to find a common ground. We had a clear understanding that it’s only by sticking together that we could have a chance to succeed.

What of the innovations in the plane do you think will be most useful to consumers?

I think very simply electric propulsion. It is not just that solar energy is renewable. It is also much more efficient than a combustion engine. If you take your car, two liters or two gallons out of three that you put in the tank are lost for heat so it’s a totally inefficient technology. With electric propulsion we’ve changed the world of aviation for a lot of reasons but it will make aviation quieter, cleaner, safer and more affordable and you can use it not only for propulsion but also to stabilize the airplane. There are few moving parts, it’s only software, it’s only electronics, which are (things we know how to produce very cheaply and very safe today, so you can start imagining that you will have new ways to transport people, for example from one side of Los Angeles to the other side. There are many projects aiming in fact to provide this added value that will all use electric propulsion. I didn’t want basically to do a commercial project after flying around the world but I couldn’t resist to continue and develop this technology because I think it will be a game changer.

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