x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Swiss adventurer eyes the green horizon

Bertrand Piccard, son and grandson of famous scientists and explorers, was first to circle the Earth by balloon, and hopes to repeat the circumnavigation - in a solar-powered aeroplane.

His grandfather was the first man to see the curvature of the Earth from an aircraft and later became the model for the batty Professor Calculus in the Tintin books.

Almost exactly 50 years ago, when Bertrand Piccard was two, his father descended nearly 11km in the bathyscaphe Trieste before settling on the seabed of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. So it was hardly surprising that when it came to choosing a career of his own, Mr Piccard, now a fit and energetic 51 years old, chose not to settle for running a corner shop in Geneva selling Swiss Army knives.

"It wasn't just my grandfather and parents," he says. "All their friends were scientists, like Werner von Braun, or astronauts or explorers. My grandfather was friends with Albert Einstein and Marie Curie. I thought that life was all about discovery and exploration." A lean man with cropped brown hair, he has clear blue eyes and a gaze that seems to be scanning the horizon for a landing spot. That is hardly surprising, because after a conventional schooling in Geneva, he became the European hang gliding champion at the tender age of 16. More aerobatic success followed, before he decided to switch to ballooning. He took part in the first transatlantic balloon race, the Chrysler Challenge, in 1992. Almost inevitably, he won.

Then followed an adventure that defined his career. One of the last big remaining challenges was a circumnavigation of the Earth in a balloon. The British billionaire Richard Branson had tried three times, and failed. Mr Branson's occasional partner, the late Steve Fossett of the US, also tried but crashed. In the Breitling Orbiter 3, a giant silver balloon, Mr Piccard and his co-pilot, Brian Jones, went around the world in 20 days, finally touching down triumphant in the Egyptian desert.

"There were 10 teams trying to achieve what we did," Mr Piccard says. "There is a great sense of achievement in trying to do something that nobody else has done. The challenge is you don't know if it is possible until you do it. We tried twice, and failed. Finally, it was third time lucky." He returned to a hero's welcome, the Legion d'honneur, and with his co-pilot set up a children's charity called Winds of Hope. One of its main efforts has been to publicise little known illnesses such as noma, a gangrenous disease that mutilates children's faces. He also launched a career as a motivational speaker. At one point he was giving 150 speeches a year, but has since scaled back his talks as he tries to complete his next major challenge, circumnavigating the world in a solar-powered aeroplane.

Solar Impulse is an unusual looking beast, a throwback to the early days of flight. With a wingspan of 64 metres, about the same as an Airbus A340, but weighing as little as a small car and powered by the equivalent of an average motorcycle engine. In the air it behaves like a giant hang glider. "It has adverse yaw," he says. "You put the stick to the left and it goes to the right. There's a big inertia so you need to stop turning before it reaches where you want to go. You put a good pilot in the simulator and it often ends in a crash."

"Does he never feel any fear?" He laughs. "Fear is the life insurance; you need a little to be careful. I am not a daredevil. I am an explorer. What I do is to visualise the danger. I plan for the unknown and unexpected. It's important to get out of bad habits and common assumptions." He is also a medical doctor, specialising in psychiatry and psychotherapy. "I tend not to practise any more, but make speeches in public on crisis management instead."

His hobbies include skiing and drinking Swiss wine. He reads books on communication and understanding human behaviour, especially those by the Armenian Greek spiritual teacher GI Gurdjieff. There is something of the mystic about Mr Piccard, although he sells his project with messianic zeal. The plane has taken seven years to go from the drawing board to the first flight, completed last year just before Christmas. Solar Impulse is a 10-year project, which has already raised $72 million (Dh264.4m) out of a planned $100m budget. It is powered by solar cells that charge batteries during daylight so that the plane can continue to fly at night.

The next step is to do altitude testing, taking the plane to 27,000 feet. Then the plane will recreate Charles Lindbergh's New York to Paris flight. Finally an attempt at the circumnavigation is set for some time in 2012, with the journey set to take 20 days, landing every five. This project now means that Mr Piccard no longer wears a Breitling, for the rival Swiss watchmaker Omega is one of the major sponsors, along with Solvay, a chemicals and pharmaceutical company based in Brussels, and Deutsche Bank. It is also possible for individuals to adopt a solar cell (for ?135, or Dh700), visit the plane and pay for the privilege (?1,350), or even have one's name engraved on the fuselage (?6,650).

"It's not just a revolution in aviation, but one in behaviour," Mr Piccard says. "We want to show that this is possible. Flying around the world to break a record is useless. But it's useful to show what you can achieve with a pioneering spirit. "In 1927, Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic alone. But 25 years after Lindbergh's efforts, airliners were flying around the world. We want to change how people behave. It is no longer acceptable to litter or not recycle rubbish. As soon as governments put rules in place preventing carbon dioxide emissions, within two or three years things will change. Unfortunately, we have a lack of political vision."

When not being a mystic, or breaking records in the air, or being a father to his three daughters aged 15, 17 and 19, he likes to sit by a chimney fire with a comic, preferably in a ski resort. Will he ever retire? "I don't think this is a project that will ever stop." He sees the need for pioneering spirits in industry, finance, politics. He is almost calling for a revolution of the mind, almost certainly a revolution in the way that governments view the environment.

"Politicians think that if you care for the environment it costs money. In fact, it is the opposite. If you pursue clean technologies, you produce jobs, investment and opportunity. Plus, if you rely on energy sources, it is basic economics that the price will go up. Better to use renewable energy. The heroes of the future will tackle renewable energy, finance, politics, poverty, human rights in a new fashion. After conquering the world, we now have to preserve it. The 21st century should be about quality of life."

He has a legion of friends around the world. Wolfgang Amadeus Bruelhart, the Swiss ambassador to the UAE, who has known Mr Piccard for many years, says each moment with him "is not a moment lost". "He's a visionary who is also very straightforward," Mr Bruelhart says. "He's a family person, and also very hospitable and generous." Mr Piccard's friends will all be hoping there is not too much adverse yaw, and the pilot returns to earth to a hero's welcome. @Email:rwright@thenational.ae

Humble beginnings Solar aviation began in the 1970s, when affordable solar cells appeared on the market. But it was not until the 1980s that the first human flights were made. In the US, a team led by Paul MacCready developed the Solar Challenge. The aircraft crossed the English Channel in 1981. Sunseeker crosses US In 1990, Eric Raymond crossed the US with his Sunseeker aeroplane in 21 stages. In the middle of the 1990s, several aeroplanes participated in the Berblinger competition, aiming to achieve an altitude of 450 metres with the aid of batteries. Helios climbs high The unmanned Helios was developed by Paul MacCready's company, AeroVironment, on behalf of NASA. The aircraft, with a wingspan of more than 70 metres, reached a record altitude of nearly 30,000 metres in 2001. Night flight achieved In 2005, Alan Cocconi, the founder of AC Propulsion, sent an unmanned aeroplane on a non-stop flight that lasted 48 hours, using only solar energy. This was the first time an aeroplane of this type was able to fly for an entire night. ? Bertrand Piccard