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Sep 17, 2007
Solar Flair - ForbesLife

Bertrand Piccard is one of our era's greatest aviators. In 1992 he won the first transatlantic balloon race and then topped himself in 1999 by captaining the first non-stop balloon flight around the world. Piccard was born to follow hard acts--his father and grandfather were also renowned explorers--but his next expedition is a real doozy: the first round-the-world flight on a self-propelled plane.

Solar Impulsecurrently being built near Zurich, will have four solar-powered propeller engines mounted on a single 262-foot wing and renderings make it appear as sturdy as a child's oversized balsa-wood glider. Is this guy nuts to want to fly this thing? He'd be the first to know: He's also a practicing psychiatrist. The doctor was in when we caught up with him in Geneva.

Is it true that your family is immortalized in the Adventures of Tintin, the popular Belgian comic book series?

My grandfather was the first balloonist to fly into the stratosphere and was always inventing things. His friend Hergé based Professor Calculus [Tintin's favorite mad professor] on him. My grandfather was a very active, inquisitive man who looked a little like Professor Calculus but he was quite tall. Hergé drew him shorter so he could fit in the cartoon boxes.

So with such an illustrious family of explorers, you naturally chose to become a psychiatrist.

When you are from a dynasty, you have to make your own way. I was always interested in human behavior. Actually ballooning and psychiatry aren't that far apart. Ballooning teaches us to change altitude to find the right wind direction. Psychiatry teaches us to change attitude if we feel pushed in directions we don't necessarily want to go. And both disciplines involve dropping things overboard if we want to keep going.

Do you put your training to practical use on your adventures?

All the time. For instance, when crossing the Atlantic for the first time in a balloon I hypnotized my partner so he could fall asleep.

How did you come up with the idea of a round-the-world solar flight?

Eight years ago, when I was doing my round-the-world balloon flight, I thought, "I'm only 40 years old. This shouldn't be my last adventure." A lot of people told me that the era of adventure for conquest was over. I disagreed because I knew I could find an adventure that dealt with improving the quality of life. What could be a more perfect demonstration of an energy-efficient future than flying around the world on a plane that doesn't need fuel and produces no pollution?

Have you developed any new technology to do this?

I contacted Omega--the watch people--because of their history of working with pioneering expeditions and their great expertise in micro-mechanical and micro-electronic engineering. They helped develop the plane's propulsion system from the propellers to the batteries. Another interesting thing we are using is a computer wired to the pilot while he is sleeping, which will wake him up if there's an emergency.

What's going to be propelling the plane when it gets dark?

We'll be flying at very high altitudes of up to 12,000 meters [39,370 feet] during daylight, so we'll be above the clouds, accumulating energy in lithium batteries on the wing. When it gets dark we'll gradually glide down until we reach 3,000 meters [9,843 feet], which we'll sustain until it gets light again.

When do you take off?

We hope to start test-flying it next year and then take the big flight in 2011.


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