Most children grow up listening to their parents tell them fairy stories. For Bertrand, the stories were all about exploration - the conquest of the Poles, of Everest, of space, and the ocean depths. His childhood heroes were all people he had met in person : Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, Charles Lindbergh, Wernher Von Braun, Alan Sheppard, John Glenn, Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Mayol, Alain Bombard,.. And finding himself present at Cape Kennedy for six of the Apollo launches molded his aspirations decisively. Bertrand had caught the exploration virus, and would never again be content with certitude, ingrained habits or dogmas. Nothing seemed impossible any longer. All that would count for him was curiosity, the unknown, surpassing limits. Doubts and question marks would be the stimuli that allowed him to progress, by calling common assumptions into question. Now that we have conquered our planet and reached the Moon, new challenges await humanity. These will open up new horizons. The goals will be not so much to conquer unknown territory as to preserve our planet from the threats it faces, and so improve our quality of life. These are the challenges that interest Bertrand.
For me, exploration had to be the only valid way of life, and I was convinced that everybody else must surely share my state of mind. Cast off dogmas, get out of the groove and embrace the unpredictable, the world of doubts and uncertainties. Use question marks to stimulate creativity and invent new solutions. Transform the “impossible” into the possible! Could there conceivably be any other way of leading your life ? I thought not, until it dawned on me that the explorer’s state of mind was in fact not commonly encountered on our planet. Exploration frightens those who prefer to take refuge in dogmas, paradigms and assumptions. People often ask me how you become an explorer. In reality, you don’t necessarily decide what you are going to explore.
« My grandfather held an Explorers Club card, and so did my father, so why shouldn’t I too? I decided to become an explorer in July 1969. I can remember the moment exactly. I was 12 years old. My father had just gone on board the Mesoscaph Ben Franklin, which he had built to study the Gulf Stream. He was about to drift for a month along the East Coast of the USA, a voyage of 3,000 km. A few days later, awestruck, I was present at the launch of Apollo 11 - destination the Moon. The most spectacular event in the history of humanity ! »
You just resolve to leave the well-trodden paths and instead take all the side-tracks, seize every opportunity to do what others dare not do, or consider impossible. Is it the same for all explorers? I have no idea, but in any case that’s how I have lived my life, following the guiding thread of my childhood dreams. I started by flying hang-gliders and ultralights when these activities reached Europe, later accepting a co-pilot’s slot to win the first transatlantic balloon race (Chrysler Challenge), before – as a natural next step - initiating the Breitling Orbiter project. After completing the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, I came to understand that what had been my ultimate goal for six years was in fact only a springboard for going further still. Solar Impulse, and the vision of flying around the world in a solar airplane without a single drop of fuel, had just been born.
It’s not simply a matter of breaking records or mounting spectacular feats. A record consists merely of beating the performance of somebody who has gone before. The explorer is capable of something better: discovering something really new or achieving a “first”, that is accomplishing something that nobody has ever done before or even thought possible. An explorer achieves “firsts”, not just records. And all the « firsts » that were the stuff of my childhood stories had been of great benefit to humanity. They had opened up new routes, new modes of transport. They had changed the face of the Earth, and above all profoundly modified our perception of the “impossible”. Those that had no direct practical results, such as the first ascents of the highest mountains, nevertheless had the power to inspire hope in human beings, by showing them what they are capable of achieving with courage and perseverance. Some had also proved to be decisive for the protection of the environment, such as the dive of the Bathyscaph in the Marianas Trench. By discovering a fish at a depth of almost seven miles, Don Walsh and my father put a stop to government plans to dispose of radioactive and toxic waste in the depths of the ocean, where hitherto everybody had thought there was no life.
The 20th Century was so rich in exploration and adventures that one may well wonder what there is left to discover in the present century. Exploration must continue, but how can we perpetuate the pioneering spirit and keep alive the daring boldness of our forefathers? How can we make our contribution to the building of a better future? We face major challenges. These will open up new horizons for science, but scientists’ goals will be less about conquering unknown territory and more about defending the planet against the threats it faces. Let us risk a comparison: the potential of humanity today is similar to that of the planet before the great explorers started exploring it! There still remains so much to be done to bring to light the hidden treasures in human beings …and to improve their quality of life.
Society seems unable to get to grips with existential questions. The political parties reflect a social landscape that’s more divided than ever. Sophisticated means of communication make human relationships very superficial. And globalization is advancing to the detriment of the weakest. And yet every human being, whatever his station in life, has dreams to bring true, a life-path to follow, a meaning to discover or rediscover in order to find fulfillment. Every individual has some potential within him - buried more or less deeply - that can be developed, to enable him to progress with confidence along the path of his own and his family’s life-story.
So this is where exploration should be focused in the 21st Century: on human beings and the development of inner values, both individual and collective. The ultimate goal should be to encourage the pioneering spirit, curiosity and innovation in everyday life. After all, survival on our planet is conditional upon radically changing many of our assumptions and habits. We should be able to protect nature without ecological fanaticism. Individual initiative should be inseparable from social responsibility. Commerce, finance and politics should become ethical, and compatible with environmental criteria. Respect should no longer be treated as an outmoded moral value. And it should be possible to embrace spirituality without dogmatism.
Utopian, you might say? Or even “impossible”? Certainly no more so than deciding to send men to the Moon at the beginning of the 1960s. But to glimpse some chance of success, we have to transform into an exciting adventure what many consider to be just a tiresome obligation to change their settled routines. Our society consumes a million tons of oil every hour, not to mention other fossil fuels. It spits out so many polluting emissions into the atmosphere that the climate is disturbed. And it allows half the population to stagnate in unacceptable living conditions. But it is quite used to all this, and has great difficulty in changing course.
That’s why we, as explorers, have a responsibility. If we want to be worthy of those who came before us, it’s our duty to do everything to invent a better future.”
Adventure in the 21st Century consists of applying human creativity and the pioneering spirit to developing a quality of life which present and future generations have a right to expect.
Exploration is a state of mind in the face of the unknown. It’s a way of conceiving our life as an experimental field in which we have to develop our inner resources, advance along the road of personal development, and assimilate the ethical and moral values we need as travelling companions.
« An adventure is not necessarily a spectacular feat but rather something « extra-ordinary » that forces us out of our ordinary ways of thinking and behaving. Something that drives us outside our protective shell of certitude, in which we act and react automatically. »
L’AVENTURE EST EXTRA-ORDINAIRE
« WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ADVENTURE AND EXTREME SPORTS, WE OFTEN TEND TO CONFUSE TWO ASPECTS - THE SPECTACULAR AND THE EXTRAORDINARY. LET’S LEAVE THE SPECTACULAR SIDE TO SPONSORS AND MEDIA AND CONCENTRATE INSTEAD ON THE EXTRA-ORDINARY. WHETHER OR NOT WE ARE CONSCIOUS OF IT, OUR ENTIRE EDUCATION AND THE WAY OUR SOCIETY FUNCTIONS ENCOURAGE US TO BE FRIGHTENED OF THE UNKNOWN, OF DOUBT AND MYSTERY. WE SOMETIMES HEAR PEOPLE SAY « NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM », BUT IT’S REALLY HUMAN BEINGS WHO FEAR THE VOID, TO THE POINT THAT THEY SEEK TO FILL ANY GAP IN KNOWLEDGE WITH VARIOUS THEORIES, AND ANY LACK OF CERTAINTY WITH STATISTICS, SO AS THEN TO FABRICATE EXPLANATIONS DEVOID OF DOUBT. ARMORED IN PREJUDICE, WE NO DOUBT HAVE MORE KNOWLEDGE, AND SOMETIMES WE KNOW A LOT OF ANSWERS. BUT ALL TOO OFTEN WE FORGET WHAT THE QUESTIONS WERE! SO IT’S ONLY NATURAL THAT OUR SOCIETY SHOULD WITNESS THE EMERGENCE OF A LARGE NUMBER OF SO-CALLED “EXTREME” SPORTS, AS A REACTION AGAINST REASSURING ROUTINES, WHICH TEND RATHER TO SEND US TO SLEEP. THESE ACTIVITIES, WHETHER IN THE AIR, ON THE GROUND OR ON WATER, HAVE SEVERAL SHARED FEATURES. ABOVE ALL, THEY ARE CENESTHETIC, PROCURING PHYSICAL SENSATIONS OF THE BODY PASSING THROUGH SPACE. THEY IMPLY MOVEMENT (SLIDING OR FLYING) IN AN UNACCUSTOMED ENVIRONMENT (DISCOVERY OF ANOTHER ELEMENT). THEY COMPEL THE «ADVENTURER» TO LEAVE THE FAMILIAR SURROUNDINGS OF HIS ACCUSTOMED LIFE WITH ALL ITS CERTAINTIES FAR BEHIND IN ORDER TO CONFRONT THE UNKNOWN, OFTEN IN NEW SITUATIONS WHERE IMPROVISATION AND INTUITION PLAY A VITAL ROLE. SO THE ADVENTURE BECOMES CHARACTERIZED BY TOTAL RECEPTIVENESS TO THE PRESENT MOMENT. IT IS A QUESTION OF REMAINING CONCENTRATED AND VIGILANT TO ALL POSSIBLE UNFORESEEN EVENTS.
SINCE ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN, IT IS VITAL TO REMAIN OPEN AND RECEPTIVE TO WHATEVER MAY OCCUR, BY RAISING ONE’S LEVEL OF VIGILANCE AND DEGREE OF SELF-AWARENESS AT ANY GIVEN MOMENT.
SO MOST « EXTREME SPORTS» OFFER SPECIAL MOMENTS OF SELF-DISCOVERY. NOT IN THE SENSE OF A THEORETICAL SEARCH FOR IDENTITY, BUT RATHER BY GIVING RISE TO A TANGIBLE SENSATION OF BEING ALIVE, AND BLESSED WITH AN ABUNDANCE OF INNER RESOURCES. OF COURSE, THERE’S A DANGER OF GOING TOO FAR WITH SUCH THRILL-SEEKING. SPORTSMEN CAN END UP BEHAVING LIKE DRUG ADDICTS, TAKING REFUGE IN EXTREME SENSATIONS TO ESCAPE FROM DULL DAILY EXISTENCE, WHICH THEY NO LONGER FIND TOLERABLE. THERE IS ALSO THE UNHEALTHY PHENOMENON OF DELIBERATELY FLIRTING WITH DEATH, WHICH THE ANTHROPOLOGIST DAVID LE BRETON HAS ANALYZED UNDER THE NAME OF “ORDEAL-SEEKING BEHAVIOR”.
BUT THESE EXCESSES SHOULD NOT MASK THE FACT THAT ADVENTURES - WHEN PEOPLE ARE FAR AWAY FROM FAMILIAR LANDMARKS AND FACE-TO-FACE WITH THE UNKNOWN, WHICH ACTS HERE AS A STIMULANT, IN A KIND OF PSYCHOLOGICAL LABORATORY - ALLOW PEOPLE TO DISCOVER THEMSELVES.
THE SPECTACULAR ASPECTS OF MOST OF THESE ACTIVITIES, EXTENSIVELY HIGHLIGHTED IN THE MEDIA, TEND TO MAKE US FORGET THAT EXTREME SPORTS DON’T HOLD A MONOPOLY ON ADVENTURE. AN ARTIST WHO TURNS HIS BACK ON ALL LANDMARKS, AND TURNS TOWARDS THE UNKNOWN – A BLANK SHEET OF MANUSCRIPT PAPER OR A BLANK CANVAS - IS EXPERIENCING AN AUTHENTIC PROCESS OF ADVENTURE AND IS MORE LIKELY TO CREATE A MASTERPIECE THAN ONE WHO TRIES TO CREATE A WORK BY REHASHING WHAT OTHERS HAVE TAUGHT HIM BEFORE. AFTER ALL, LIFE GIVES US AN INCALCULABLE NUMBER OF OPPORTUNITIES TO GET OUT OF OUR FAMILIAR RUT, TO REALLY FEEL THAT WE ARE ALIVE, BY VIRTUE OF ENCOUNTERING UNPREDICTABLE SITUATIONS, CONFRONTING THE UNKNOWN AND WRESTLING WITH DOUBT.
BUT MOST OFTEN, ALL WE EVER REMEMBER ABOUT THESE OPPORTUNITIES ARE CATASTROPHES, CRISES, ACCIDENTS AND ILLNESSES, AND TOO OFTEN WE ALLOW THESE TO CAUSE US TO FORGET EVERYTHING THAT WE COULD HAVE LEARNED FROM THEM. WE CANNOT AVOID LIFE’S DIFFICULTIES, NOR, DESPITE ALL OUR EFFORTS, CAN WE AVOID BEING CONFRONTED BY THE UNPREDICTABLE. BUT WE CAN LIVE OUR WHOLE LIFE AS A GREAT ADVENTURE, BY SEEKING TO ACQUIRE CONSCIOUSNESS OF WHAT IS GUIDING OUR STEPS. AND THROUGH THIS SIMPLE QUESTION WHICH HAS NO ANSWER IT BECOMES POSSIBLE TO FEEL THAT WERE REALLY EXIST, AND THEREFORE, IN SOME SENSE, TO DISCERN WHO WE ARE. »
If the round-the-world balloon flight was the fulfillment of Bertrand’s dreams of adventure, Solar Impulse is his life’s project : a solar airplane capable of flying through day and night without fuel, demonstrating the efficiency of new clean technologies in conserving our planet’s natural resources. He finds in it all aspects of his family’s heritage - the pioneering spirit, curiosity, perseverance, scientific adventure, airborne exploration, high technology, teamwork, calling into question what people consider “impossible”, and of course environmental protection. The solar airplane may seem the project’s focal point, but beyond the aeronautical dimension, the overriding aim is to encourage everyone to be pioneers in their everyday lives. Whether in the way they think and act, take political decisions, or make choices about energy. To be part of the Solar Impulse adventure is to subscribe to an initiative that shows why surpassing personal limits makes sense, and places human-oriented values back at the center of debate.
The vision of a solar airplane flying day and night without using any fuel seemed an obvious next step to Bertrand after his round-the-world balloon flight. Of the 3.7 tons of liquid propane on board at take-off, only 40 kg remained on landing. Success had been entirely dependent on the consumption of the burners. That was the moment when Bertrand promised to himself to go round the world again, but this time taking no fossil fuel with him. In 2002, he asked the Geneva Utilities Department to provide a preliminary analysis, and traveled across the USA to find out how pioneers like Paul McCready and Burt Rutan could help him. Solar airplanes had flown before, but only during the day, and without any capacity for storing energy. In 2003,
« The ultimate objective of Solar Impulse is to lend expression to a human-centered vision giving free rein to innovation and the pioneering spirit in everyday life. »
« Just imagine your energy reserves increasing during flight! To make this dream a reality, we had to make maximum use of every possible source of energy efficiency. By tapping into each team member’s experience and using the combined potential of them all, we managed to find the solutions. »
the Swiss FederalInstitute of Technology in Lausanne became enthusiastic about the idea and offered to conduct a feasibility study. This task was allocated to André Borschberg. A friendship was born, and a determination to work together to ensure successful execution of the project. André, an entrepreneur, engineer and professional pilot, put together the technical team and directed the building of the prototype. Bertrand, the visionary and communicator, developed the forward-looking philosophy of the project, outlining its symbolic and political significance in a way that convinced financial partners to back the challenge.
If the round-the-world balloon flight was the final adventure of the 20th Century, Solar Impulse is without doubt the first to encapsulate the challenges of the 21st.
Albert de Monaco
After 4 years of studies and 2 years’ construction work, the revolutionary prototype – registered HB-SIA – made its maiden flight on 3 December 2009. With the wingspan of an Airbus 340 and the weight of a small car, nothing could be taken for granted. In July 2010, with André at the controls, Solar Impulse made the first solar-powered flight through a day/night cycle – a historic success. The flight lasted 26 hours and gave credibility to Bertrand’s vision. Further flights followed all over Switzerland, and then across Europe. Solar Impulse, under the patronage of the European Commission and Parliament, landed first in Brussels and then flew on to Paris, where it gave demonstrations as guest of honor at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget. In the spring of 2012, Bertrand and André took turns at the controls to make the first ever solar-powered intercontinental flight – 6,000 km for the return trip between Switzerland and Morocco, where King Mohamed VI had invited them to support the Moroccan solar energy program. During this time, the technical team was concentrating on building a second, even more sophisticated airplane, destined to fly round the world in 2015.
Even though it has not yet circumnavigated our planet, Solar Impulse has already achieved its first aim : to promote renewable forms of energy and clean technologies capable of reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels. The solar airplane attracts the highest political and economic authorities into debates on the technological solutions currently available to achieve internationally agreed CO2 reduction targets. Each such encounter is also an opportunity to raise the problems of resistance to change and the dangerous or costly effects of using old technologies.
« What now remains to be done is to assemble around this project - and so give a voice - to all those who share our views that survival on this planet depends on sustainable development, that we can protect nature without being ecological fanatics, and that individual initiative cannot be dissociated from social responsibility. Also, that trade, finance and politics should be conducted ethically, that respect is not an outdated moral precept, and that you can have a spiritual life without dogmatism. »
GIVING AN IMPULSE
« Dreams give birth to innovation, and innovation leads to progress. Let’s move forward by inventing a more promising future! Beyond the aeronautical dimension, Solar Impulse seeks above all to encourage people to be pioneers in their everyday lives. By stimulating change. Whether in ways of thinking or behaving, abandoning dogmatism and ingrained habits. » (Bertrand Piccard
By placing dreams and emotions at the center of scientific adventure, Bertrand and André are trying to point out the paradigm shifts that can be achieved immediately and will improve the state of the world. Not just by using technology, but equally importantly through responsible citizenship. To be part of the Solar Impulse adventure is to subscribe to an initiative that shows why surpassing personal limits makes sense, and places human-oriented values back at the center of debate.
THE ZERO-FUEL AIRPLANE
The wingspan of an Airbus 340, but the weight of a small car !
In order to fly by day and by night using only solar energy, Solar Impulse has to reach absolutely unprecedented levels of aerodynamic performance and energy efficiency. This requirement led the whole team, under the direction of André Borschberg, to bring off an amazing technological feat - building a carbon-fiber airplane with a span of 64 meters that weighs only 1,600 kg ! No aircraft manufacturer had thought it possible to meet such a challenge. They had to work with no benchmarks to rely on, using ultralight materials and new manufacturing processes, at the very boundary of the possible.
The lithium batteries, which weigh 400 kg, are recharged during the day by 200 m2 of photovoltaic cells, allowing flight to continue through the night before a new cycle starts the following morning. The price to be paid for this is a very low speed (on average 70 km/h) and high sensitivity to turbulence. Only one pilot can be carried. So Bertrand and André take turns in the cockpit for flights that last over 26 hours.
« It’s easy to generate public enthusiasm for great adventures – people are keen to share the dreams of pioneers and explorers. A solar airplane that can fly day and night and even round the world without any fuel conveys a strong message. If it is possible to get by without fossil fuels in the air, nobody can ever again claim that we cannot do it in our daily lives on the ground, in our cars, houses, heating systems, air conditioners and electric lights. We need to generate positive feelings about renewable energies and clean technologies that allow energy to be saved. Let’s draw governments’ attention to the unavoidable changes that are needed to secure the planet’s future energy supplies and ecological balance. Let’s show how environmental protection can be profitable and stimulating for us. Let’s show how alternative energy sources, allied to new technologies, can help us achieve things previously considered impossible. » (Bertrand Piccard)
To date, Bertrand and his associate André Borschberg have already made the first intercontinental solar flights between Europe and Africa, and their airplane has stayed airborne for 26 hours - more than a complete day/night cycle. There was enough solar energy to drive the four electric motors, charge the batteries needed for night-flight, and continue flying the following morning. One way of getting closer to the myth of perpetual flight…
« It’s symbolic, because we will probably never be able to carry 300 passengers in a solar airliner, but the symbolism concerns us all. If you think about it, aren’t we all here on Earth in the same situation as the Solar Impulse pilot? If he did not have the right technology, or if he wasted energy, he would have to land with empty batteries before the sun rose to allow him to prolong his flight. As for us, if we don’t invest in the scientific methods that allow us to develop new sources of energy, and if our politicians and industrialists continue to lack vision, we will find ourselves in a major crisis that will prevent us from handing the planet on to the next generation. » (Bertrand Piccard)
At first, it was an impossible dream. The public and the media saw it as the final great adventure of the Century - to make a flight surpassing all others, a complete circumnavigation of the globe with no engine or steering mechanism, simply drifting along with the wind. Several billionaires such as Richard Branson and Steve Fossett had made unsuccessful attempts. After two failures, Bertrand Piccard, accompanied this time - in March 1999 - by Brian Jones from England, finally achieved the first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight. At one stroke, their Breitling Orbiter 3 flew further, and for longer than any other aircraft in aviation history, thereby setting seven World Records. The gondola is now on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, alongside the Apollo 11 capsule and the airplanes of the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Chuck Yeager.
There are several ways of describing Breitling Orbiter 3’s first non-stop round-the-world balloon flight. There is the philosophical angle, with dreams and perseverance combining to make the “impossible” a reality. You could focus on the writing of a new page in the history books, or on the human adventure - using the strength of the wind to fly further and for longer than anyone had ever previously managed. Then there’s the technology - developing a balloon capable of staying aloft for three weeks. Not to mention the sporting angle, with several world records thrown in. It was the combination of all of these different aspects that caught Bertrand’s imagination. They contain all the elements of an epic adventure, and explain why this flight captured so many people’s interest.
This adventure was also to take on the character of a technological challenge. When Bertrand started planning the Breitling Orbiter project, no balloon had ever remained airborne for more than six days, whereas the meteorologists were recommending an endurance of three weeks. It would be necessary to build a gigantic envelope, 55 meters high and covered with a layer of thermal insulation, as well as a pressurized cabin allowing the crew to survive at altitudes of 10,000 to 12,000 meters, where the jet-streams blow.
Over several years, numerous contestants launched serious research projects but suffered spectacular failures: Max Anderson’s Jules Verne balloon, Larry Newman’s Earthwind, the Virgin Global Challenger of Richard Branson, Bertrand Piccard’s Breitling Orbiter, the Solo Spirit of Steve Fossett, Kevin Uliassi’s J-Renée, Global Hilton of Dick Rutan, and Andy Elson’s Cable & Wireless, to mention only those that managed to get off the ground. If it had been easy, everyone would already have done it!
Another aspect fascinated Bertrand: the symbolic significance of these attempts. The development of science had led to amazing progress in the last two centuries, but most inventions were aimed at giving men better control over the forces of nature. In ballooning, pilots submit to the elements, allowing themselves to be swept along by air currents. A balloon is propelled only by the wind, so can move only at the same speed and in the same direction as the wind. Against this background, the role of technology is limited to understanding the atmosphere, playing with it more effectively - in short, concluding an alliance with Nature.
« To cross oceans drifting with the wind - what could possibly be more marvelous, more precarious, more sophisticated? Poetry and technology are in harmony here….In the immortal footsteps of his grandfather and his father, Bertrand Piccard has added a splendid and moving page to his great family saga. »
12 January 1997 : Bertrand had announced a 15-day flight in the jet-streams. After only 6 hours in the air, his gondola was floating miserably in the Mediterranean ! A massive fuel leak and consequent risk of explosion had forced him and his fellow crew-member, Wim Verstraeten, to make an emergency ditching. February 1998 : Second Breitling Orbiter attempt. After a nine-day flight, another disappointment, despite breaking the absolute world endurance record. The detour made necessary by the ban on flying over China forced Bertrand and his two fellow crew-members, Andy Elson and Wim Verstraeten, to land in Burma. End of winter, 1999 – and all his competitors had failed. Bertrand, accompanied this time by the Englishman Brian Jones, took off on 1st March 1999 from the village of Châteaux-d’Oex in the Swiss Alps on board Breitling Orbiter 3. The first problem was to fly south to below the 26°N parallel to comply with Chinese restrictions. For Pierre Eckert and Luc Trullemans, the two weather wizards, it was like threading a needle at a distance of 15,000 kilometers ! But they brought it off. A voyage around the world is also a world tour of nations, people and regional politics. Air-traffic controllers and Swiss diplomats were constantly being called upon to help open the routes across Egypt, Yemen, India, China and Japan. Strategic decision-making was often painful. Was it better to fly further north in a fast airstream or stay south in slower winds ? Approaching the Pacific, the question became even more critical, as the southerly route added 4,000 kilometers to the journey! But this was the option the meteorologists favored, because storms were raging in the North. In winds of 30 km/h, surrounded by storm-clouds and out of contact with mission-control because of satellite antenna problems, Bertrand and Brian watched helplessly as their prospects of success receded with the diminishing reserves of propane gas. The vast ocean below made them homesick for the reassuring splendor of the African desert and the Indian plains that the balloon had flown over. After six agonizing days, the meteorologists’ gamble paid off. The balloon at last entered a powerful jet stream that carried it towards Mexico at 180km/h. But then the speed slumped once again and the jet stream spat the pilots out in the direction of Venezuela, just as it had dumped Richard Branson several months earlier, forcing him to ditch south of Hawaii. On 20th March, Bertrand and Brian stormed across the final meridian in their dream adventure at 200 km/h, landing the following day in Egypt and entering the annals with the longest flight in aviation history, both for distance and duration. But more important than their seven world records, they were left with the feeling that they had succeeded in forging a more intimate and respectful relationship with our planet.
Considered to be the final adventure of the 20th Century, the flight around the world by balloon gives us a glimpse of the importance of forging a new alliance between human beings, technology and nature.
Like balloons, human beings have to change altitude if they wish to change direction in the winds of life.
The poles, the continents, mountains, space, the ocean depths – all had been explored. But even though the balloon had been invented back in 1783, none had ever flown around the world! Several balloonists had already made attempts to convert Jules Verne’s fantasy into reality (the first dates back to 1981), but the real race only began in the early 1990s. The FAI (World Air Sports Federation) laid down the rules: to fly at least 25,000 km, crossing all the meridians whilst remaining between two caps of radius 3,335.85 km centered on each of the Poles.
Eleven days to reach the Pacific, concentrating 100% on accurately maintaining the precise altitudes calculated by the meteorologists, sometimes flying in jet-streams, but often also in much slower winds, playing with areas of low pressure over the Mediterranean and high pressure over India.
In a desperate last move to find better winds approaching the Caribbean, Bertrand increased the stakes, using up a huge amount of propane to gain as much altitude as possible. At 10,500 meters, the airflow miraculously started blowing them back on track. But they still had 10,000 kilometers to go and were down to the last eighth of their fuel reserves. Success was possible only if the wind strengthened four-fold… And that’s precisely what happened !
Breitling Orbiter 3 found a final resting place in the main hall of Washington’s prestigious Smithsonian Air and Space Museum alongside the Apollo 11 capsule and the legendary airplanes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Chuck Yeager.
The pilots were feted all around the world and received by several monarchs and heads of state. Bertrand was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, the Olympic Order, the French Youth and Sport and Aeronautical Medals, as well as the highest distinctions of the FAI (World Air Sports Federation), the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club, the American Academy of Achievement and several other aeronautical, scientific and sporting bodies. Nominated Honorary Professor, and awarded honorary doctorates in Science and Letters, Bertrand also received the Grand Prix of the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations (UNFPA). His name appeared alongside those of his father and grandfather in the Larousse encyclopedia.
In his twin roles as doctor and explorer, Bertrand became much in demand as a speaker for large companies and international organizations. They are interested in his vision, career path, and heritage combining science with human values.
The two pilots, together with their sponsor Breitling, fulfilled the promise they had made on landing to dedicate their achievement to the world’s children and to help neglected suffering people. They launched the Winds of Hope foundation, using their celebrity to support the struggle against Noma, a horrifying disease that disfigures the faces of hundreds of thousands of children in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia.
« A balloon lifting off into the icy winter sky, soaring up above the mountain tops, and then disappearing. We all gazed childlike as Piccard and his colleague rose into the air searching for the winds that should carry them round the world. As simple as Icarus’ dream. Like a page from a Jules Verne novel. Like some fabric of madness, volatile and elegant, clinging to the tatters of our gravity. Piccard’s adventure isn’t a technical one, or at least not only that. First and foremost, it’s a spiritual adventure. Piccard is not some Jules Verne charac-ter, not a Passepartout, nor even a Phileas Fogg. He’s more like St. Exupéry flying over the desert. His vision of the world is that of the Little Prince…
I’d almost say that whether he succeeds or not is of secondary importance. Unlike the rest of us Earthlings, at least he will have been to have a look. “Men are not like me,” said one of Malraux’s heroes. “They stare at me and judge me. My fellow creatures are those who love me and don’t watch my every move. One would like to think of Piccard as Chang’s scarf, lost among the rocks, which draws Hergé’s hero Tintin to embark on a quest for the absolute. Not for the adventure in itself, but for brotherhood amongst men…
Let us wish fair winds for Bertrand Piccard. Let us wish for the Heavens, in all meanings of the term, to be on his side. »
Countries over-flown : Switzerland, Italy, France, Monaco, Spain, Mo- rocco, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Libya, Egypt. Landed on 21 March 1999 at Dakhla (Egypt) Total Distance : 45
12 January 1997: forced ditching in the Mediterranean six hours into the flight, following a fuel leak in the cabin.
28 January to 7 February 1998 : absolute world endurance record for all categories of flight. Landed in Burma because of the ban on overflying China. Distance :8,473 km - Flight time : 233 h 55
1st to 21st March 1999 : First non-stop round-the-world balloon flight, longest flight in aviation history for both distance and duration. Took off on 1st March 1999 from Château-d’Oex (Swiss Alps)
Eighteen years pioneering all forms of ultralight aviation, whether for the pure pleasure of being alone with his thoughts communing with Nature, or as a competitor or performing at air-shows. Aerobatics, cross-countries, launches from hot-air balloons, high altitude flights in hang-gliders and paragliders. Numerous “firsts” in weightshift ultralights, notably in the Alps, Greece, the Maldives, and the Canary Islands, on floats and on skis. But above and beyond the sport itself, what fascinated Bertrand was observing how superior levels of consciousness emerged at the most critically intense moments in his flights. That is what led him to become a psychiatrist.
The first hang-gliders appeared in the Swiss Alps in 1974. For Bertrand, it was love at first sight. He had just celebrated his 16th birthday, and immediately started flying, taught by a few friends. His first real flight ended up on the roof of a chalet. But that wasn’t about to discourage him. The following year, he won his first competition. A founder member of the Swiss Hang Gliding Federation, he quickly became well-known in air-show circles, making numerous demonstration flights, usually after dropping from a hot-air balloon. He discovered ultralight airplane flying in 1979, on the very first motorized hang-glider trike imported into Switzerland. He was 21 years old and dreaming of adventure. He decided to interrupt his medical studies for three years to
Hang-gliders evolved, from the early–often dangerous –triangular kites, to rigid wings fitted with aerodynamic control surfaces. In parallel, Bertrand developed his skills, throwing himself into stunt flying and becoming European Aerobatic Champion in 1985.
work on introducing this new discipline into tourist areas. He flew over Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon in Greece, took the aerial pictures for a film made in the Maldives, participated in the first Ultralight Tour de France, and unsuccessfully tried to develop centers giving rides to tourists in the Canary Islands. In Switzerland, he fought against the ban on ultralights decreed by certain ecological lobby groups, and as an act of protest made the first ultralight crossing of the Alps into Italy, which landed him in court. This was his bohemian period, characterized by improvised trips abroad and exotic experiences. He put an end to it by resuming his studies.
Bertrand executed his last loop at Château-d’Oex in January 1992. He then stowed away his hang-gliders to concentrate on preparing first for the Transatlantic Balloon Race and then the Round-the-World Flight.
A door opening onto a world of unexpected riches, which puts us into contact with our deepest values.
Hang-glider aerobatics was to remain a source of inspiration to Bertrand in his role as a doctor. It showed him how performance depends crucially on a person’s degree of self-awareness at a given moment. It also revealed that he was able to manage stressful situations in everyday life better, having first mastered the dangers encountered in flight. He acquired an ability to concentrate, as well as quick reactions, and these would help him to feel at ease when facing unforeseen circumstances and other hazards of life. It was this quest for self-awareness – an intuition of what is really essential - that led him to become a doctor and then a psychiatrist. Without going so far as to urge his patients to engage in extreme sports, he thought it possible to derive advantage from existential crises and teach them how to use their inner resources to help them become more responsible for their own personal development.
«The way is now open for us to explore an unsuspected «space» within us, which daily life and all its demands usually prevent us from seeing. This «space» is the sensation of feeling oneself to be in action and at the very present moment.»
It was this quest for self-awareness - an intuition of what is really essential - that led him to become a doctor and then a psychiatrist.