The perfect place for an 'impossible dream' | April 5, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

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News - April 5, 2013

The perfect place for an 'impossible dream'

Swiss pilots to depart from MV on solar-powered cross-country flight

by Nick Veronin

Bertrand Piccard, co-inventor and pilot of the Solar Impulse — an ultra-light aircraft, powered exclusively by energy gathered from the sun — said Moffett Field is the ideal location from which to launch the plane's cross-country trip.

"Mountain View is really the perfect place," Piccard said.

Pointing to the region's fair weather and Moffett's large hangars, he said the location made sense logistically. But it it also made sense symbolically that the world's first solar-powered aircraft capable of flying continuously through day and night should make its first U.S. flights in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Since Piccard and his partner on the Impulse project, Andre Borschberg, began working from their temporary operating base at Moffett Field, they have talked with NASA engineers, made plans to speak at Stanford and Berkeley universities and met with fellow inventor and entrepreneur, Elon Musk — founder of Tesla and SpaceX.

Borschberg and Piccard said that setting up in Silicon Valley has a third advantage — money. The duo hope to bring American investors on board, and Moffett's proximity to the venture capital firms on Sand Hill Road puts them in a good position to do just that.

However, talking with the Swiss aviation pioneers, it becomes clear that the ultimate goal of their planned American tour is to inspire. Piccard said that when he speaks at local universities, he hopes to spark the interest of the next generation of solar inventors. When children see the Impulse taking diagnostic runs in the skies over Mountain View and the rest of the Bay Area, Borschberg hopes that the sight may give them pause — to reconsider what they believe is possible.

Many people told the Solar Impulse inventors that their vision was an impossible one, Piccard said. "This is why we emphasize a lot with our project the need to have more pioneers — more innovators," he said.

Piccard acknowledged that the time when commercial flights will incorporate solar power systems into their designs is a long way off. He said he doesn't even think solar panels would provide enough energy to power the entertainment system or cockpit instruments on a passenger plane. But that doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of places where solar power ought to be used with much greater frequency.

Solar panels can be incorporated into all cars and placed on the roofs of all homes and businesses, he said. "This is really what we want to promote," Piccard continued. "The world needs to save energy."

The powers that be in the current energy industry — those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo — certainly aren't going to bend over backwards to push alternative energy models, he said. So it is up to the people to demand it. He and Borschberg want to demonstrate that not only is it viable, but it is exciting and a way to create new jobs.

"The fact that people don't want to change their habits, I think is one of the biggest problems in our world," Piccard said. "We can do so much more for energy saving."

Cross-country and beyond

At a March 28 press conference, the Swiss duo outlined their plans to pilot their invention across the United States this summer — they'll take off from Moffett Field sometime in May — and also touched upon their plans for a much larger, record-shattering trip, in which they will fly the Impulse around world without using a single drop of fossil fuel.

The Impulse's 208-foot wingspan is comparable to many jumbo jets, yet the aircraft weighs in at just 3,527 pounds — about 300 pounds more than a Toyota Camry. "This prototype is the result of seven years of intense work," Borschberg said in a press release.

With a skin of thin solar panels and a heart of state-of-the-art batteries, the Impulse has already shown its ability to drink up and store enough of the sun's rays in the day to keep flying overnight — a critical ability, since the Impulse will need to stay in the air for up to five days straight to traverse the Pacific Ocean.

It is unclear which pilot will take the Impulse over the Pacific and which will take the aircraft over the Atlantic. But whoever takes the Pacific flight has quite a harrowing journey ahead of him, said Piccard, who has flown over both oceans once before, when he circumnavigated the globe in a non-stop hot air balloon flight back in 1999.

"The Pacific is quite scary," he said, recalling that he and his team had estimated the flight would take three days, but in reality it took seven due to uncooperative winds. "(The Pacific) is impressive. There will be some suspense."

There will also be some boredom, no doubt. The Solar Impulse, which tops out at slightly more than 75 mph in perfect flying conditions, should be able to make the trip over the Pacific in four or five days, Piccard and his team figured. During that time, whoever is piloting the plane will get very little sleep — catching quick catnaps here and there — and will have to remain seated in the cloistered cabin.

Still, no matter how frightening, or boring, the trip around the world turns out to be, Piccard said he is thrilled to be a part of the project. "When (people) see the plane, they should think, 'These guys achieved the impossible dream and it worked! And we also need to try to achieve our impossible dreams and it also might work!"


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