Adventurer Piccard inspires with Solar Impulse journey  — and beyond

by Malcolm Curtis (

In his third speech to the American International Club, Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard inspired a packed audience on December 6 with a talk that soared beyond his solar airplane exploits to offer poignant lessons about life and overcoming its challenges.

Piccard, 55, is the initiator and co-founder of the Solar Impulse project, which aims to fly a solar-powered aircraft around the world in 2014 (a target later postponed to 2015).

He and partner André Borschberg took a step in that direction earlier this year when they alternately flew a four-engined prototype, powered by solar panels, in five stages across the United States.

Trained as a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Piccard comes from a family of adventurers and has already won world renown for circumnavigating the world in a balloon, a feat accomplished with Briton Brian Jones in 1999.

One of his sources of inspiration for Solar Impulse, he said, was the story of American aviation pioneer Calbreath Perry Rodgers, who made the first transcontinental flight across the US in 1911.

Rodgers, who was bidding to win a prize, suffered 16 crashes and three stays in hospital but persisted, even after suffering a broken leg, to land his primitive plane on a beach in California.

“He became one of my heroes,” Piccard said. “I was inspired by this kind of story.”

He explained how the Solar Impulse flight across the US was an impromptu development that arose because a wing broke on the plane that is to be used for the around-the-world flight.

The team decided “we either lose a year or gain a year.”

They disassembled the pieces of its prototype, flew them in a transport plane to the US, where it was reassembled.

The record-setting American flight — covering a distance of 3,511 miles from Mountain View, California to New York — offered a unique opportunity to showcase the project to the world.

Piccard presented a brief video showing the positive response with which the plane was greeted at every stop.

“Seeing these pictures you can really see why we love to be in the US.”

The Solar Impulse plane, with the wingspan of an Airbus passenger plane, the weight of a car and the capability to fly day and night, defies what many people would think is possible.

But “innovation is an old certitude we get rid of,” Piccard said.

“The limits are not in reality, they are in your head.”

The Lausanne native talked of the need to apply “pioneering spirits” to improve quality of life, for good governance, to end poverty and promote renewable energies and sustainable development.

He said he wanted to “inspire other people to dare”, while adding that “the biggest adventure of all is not to fly to the moon, it’s life itself, all the challenges we have in life.”

Innovation is being stymied in cases when there is no incentive to use new technologies, he said, arguing that new policies were needed to “get rid of old polluting technologies.”

But Piccard said he favored the term “clean technology” to “green technology” because the one supports job creation and development while the other suggests limitations to economic expansion.

Solar Impulse has attracted a number of sponsors, but he revealed that the team still needs 20 million francs to reach its goal.

Five percent of the project is funded by individual donations, he said.

Commenting on preparations for next year’s planned round the world flight, Piccard said he and partner Borschberg are using hypnosis to help them sleep for short periods.

With flights across oceans as long as six days or more, they plan to sleep for 20 minutes then stay awake for 20 minutes while each piloting the plane across the Pacific and Atlantic, he indicated.

Piccard also spoke about his Winds of Hope Foundation, selected by the AIC for charitable support this Christmas.

The goal of the Lausanne-based foundation is to provide training and support to prevent the spread of noma, a disfiguring disease, among children in six African countries. For more information, check:



About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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