Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard completed a risky three-day flight across a great expanse of the Pacific Ocean while sleeping for only 20 minutes at a time in a solar-powered plane.
Piccard was at the controls of the single-seater with no heat or air conditioning while having to keep in constant contact with the Europe-based team and control centre of Solar Impulse.
Piccard is one of two pilots taking turns to fly the plane around the world in what they call a demonstration of the importance of renewable energy, but also the many challenges the human body can endure.
But how did Piccard cope with the isolation?
“You have interviews, navigation control, communications with the control centre in Monaco. You have health checks, a lot of health checks,” he said. “It’s very active, there are a lot of things to do, but you can nevertheless enjoy it.”
Piccard uses self-hypnosis to keep his energy up and puts heating pads inside his shoes and gloves for warmth. He ate ready-made meals – risotto, chicken curry and potatoes are on the menu – which can be warmed up with a special heat packet.
Piccard tags in and out with the other pilot, Andre Borschberg, as they switch legs.
On Sunday, special guests, many of them with Google, which is sponsoring the project, had a first look at the plane inside a huge white tent at Moffett Airfield, California. The guests also took photos with Piccard and Borschberg.
Piccard landed the Solar Impulse 2 in Mountain View, in the Silicon Valley south of San Francisco, on Saturday night (local time), following a 62-hour, non-stop solo flight from Hawaii without fuel.
The landing came hours after he made a fly-by over the Golden Gate Bridge as spectators below watched the narrow aircraft with extra wide wings.
Piccard and Borschberg have been taking turns flying the plane on a round-the-world trip since taking off from Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in March 2015. It has made stops in Oman, Burma, China, Japan and Hawaii.
The trans-Pacific legs were the riskiest part of the plane’s travels because of the lack of emergency landing sites.
“We have demonstrated it is feasible to fly many days, many nights, that the technology works” said Borschberg, 63, who piloted the plane on a five-day trip from Japan to Hawaii and kept himself alert with yoga poses and meditation.
The aircraft faced a few bumps along the way.
The Solar Impulse 2 landed in Hawaii in July and was forced to stay in the islands after the plane’s battery system sustained heat damage on its trip from Japan. The team was delayed in Asia, too. When first attempting to fly from Nanjing, China, to Hawaii, the crew had to divert to Japan because of unfavourable weather and a damaged wing.
A month later, with better weather conditions, the plane left Nagoya in central Japan for Hawaii.
The plane’s ideal flight speed is about 28mph, though that can double during the day when the sun’s rays are strongest. The carbon-fibre aircraft weighs more than 5,000lbs, about as much as a mid-size truck.
Solar Impulse 2 will make three more stops in the United States before crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Europe or northern Africa.
The project, which is estimated to cost more than $100 million (£70m), began in 2002 to highlight the importance of renewable energy and the spirit of innovation. Solar-powered air travel is not yet commercially practical, given the slow travel time, weather and weight constraints of the aircraft.