‘Impossible Flight’ reveals the turmoil and technology of a solar plane’s global trek

Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg shared the piloting duties on the single-seat Solar Impulse 2 airplane. (Niels Ackermann Photo / Rezo / Solar Impulse)

From the outside, it looked as if the Swiss-led Solar Impulse project smoothly soldiered through adversity as its solar-powered plane made a record-setting trip around the world in 2015 and 2016.

But the perspective was different when seen from the inside: The multimillion-dollar campaign nearly came crashing down when teammates debated whether to go ahead with a crucial Pacific crossing, even though the monitoring system for the autopilot wasn’t working right.

“The engineers were crying,” said Bertrand Piccard, the Swiss psychiatrist and adventurer who served as Solar Impulse’s co-founder, chairman and one of its pilots. “They were begging me to stop.”

The turmoil as well as the technology behind the globe-girdling, fuel-free odyssey are on full display in “The Impossible Flight,” a two-hour NOVA documentary premiering on PBS tonight.

“This is why it is so good to have this documentary,” Piccard told GeekWire. “Sometimes the public, from outside, think they know the story. … They think, ‘Wow, it’s easy.’ But it’s really difficult. There were a lot of emotions, hurdles, problems, technical problems, meteorological problems, administrative problems. It’s all the ingredients in the recipe for a big drama.”

Piccard and Solar Impulse’s other founder, former Swiss fighter pilot Andre Borschberg, conceived of the adventure as a way to demonstrate environmentally clean technologies, ranging from ultra-lightweight building materials to the thousands of solar cells that powered the plane.

They put their first plane to the test during a coast-to-coast flight across America in 2013. Then, with further backing from their industrial sponsors, Piccard and Borschberg followed up with Solar Impulse 2, an all-electric airplane that weighs as much as a family car but has a wingspan that’s wider than a Boeing 747 jet.

Solar Impulse 2’s flight plan called for the odyssey to begin and end in Abu Dhabi, with stopovers in Oman, India, Myanmar, China, Japan, Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, Spain and Egypt. Piccard and Borschberg took turns in the cockpit’s single seat, which could be turned into a toilet when necessary.

‘A moment in history’

Filmmakers Noel Dockstader and Quinn Kanaly had extraordinary access to the team at every step of the way, and at Solar Impulse’s mission control in Monaco.

“It just struck us as an incredible adventure story, and incredibly unique because it pushed technology to the limit, and it pushed human endurance to the limit,” Kanaly told GeekWire. “We saw it as a moment in history that we felt compelled to capture.”

Dockstader compared Piccard and Borschberg to the astronauts of the early space age. “It’s a story of drama, similar to the first moonshot — with a similar amount of risk,” he said.

It didn’t take long for the risks to emerge: Piccard was almost forced to bail out during the flight from Oman to Ahmedabad, the first stop in India. That was one of the factors that went into the decision to have Borschberg, the more experienced pilot, fly the five-day journey across the Pacific from Japan to Hawaii.

Borschberg took off without incident, but engineers soon discovered that the plane’s autopilot wasn’t fully functional and that the pilot was facing fatigue. The team had to decide whether to keep going, or have the plane turn back before it reached the point of no return.

Piccard argued strongly for pressing on, over the objections of some other team members, and those tense moments are documented in “The Impossible Flight.”

Entering into exploration

Piccard said his experience as an adventurer and round-the-world balloonist gave him the confidence to make his case. “I know what it means to enter into the unknown,” he told GeekWire. “But the engineers, they did not know that. … For the first time, they entered into exploration.”

Borschberg said he also was in favor of continuing the flight.

“When we heard that the weather was improving, for me that was a sign to keep going,” he told GeekWire. “Sometimes you have to take the decision that you wouldn’t take in a normal situation.”

The engineers were overruled, and Borschberg made the crossing — but at a cost. By the time he landed in Hawaii, the plane’s batteries had overheated to the point that the whole system had to be replaced. Because of seasonal weather patterns, Solar Impulse had to put the odyssey on hold in Hawaii in July 2015.

After a nine-month hiatus, Piccard took the controls for the crossing from Hawaii to California in April 2016, and the two men completed their tag-team trek around the world within the three months that followed.

“Impossible Flight” shows how Borschberg and Piccard worked together like brothers, and sometimes argued like brothers. “It was very enriching,” Piccard recalled. “Each time we had a problem to solve, Andre brought one solution, I brought a different solution, and we combined the different solutions we had to make a third solution.”

“We very quickly forged a relationship where one plus one equals three,” Borschberg said.

There are plenty of beauty shots of oceans and deserts, pyramids and monuments, captured by chase planes and by webcams affixed to Solar Impulse 2. At times, Piccard or Borschberg speak directly into the cockpit webcam as they struggle with in-flight challenges, or enjoy the view.

“It is so beautiful to cross oceans with this airplane,” Piccard said.

After the odyssey

It’s been more than a year and a half since Solar Impulse 2’s odyssey ended, but the project’s “Future Is Clean” message lives on. Borschberg is the co-founder of a Swiss startup called H55 that focuses on electric propulsion technologies.

“Fifteen years ago, when we started, it was clear that we wanted to have an airplane that was solar … an airplane that could theoretically fly forever,” Borschberg said. “Today, electric propulsion will revolutionize aviation.”

Piccard, meanwhile, is concentrating on the World Alliance for Effective Solutions, a spin-off of the Solar Impulse Foundation that’s aiming to identify 1,000 technological solutions to protect the environment in a profitable way.

“This is really my contribution to a better world,” Piccard said. “And it is also something that can interest and motivate the climate deniers. … I can try to reconcile ecology and industry.”

Piccard said he’s optimistic that his vision of profitable environmental protection will take root, even if America’s current leaders aren’t receptive to it.

“The United States has lost its leadership in that field, so now the leadership is taken by the French and Chinese,” he said. “The French and the Chinese are pushing very hard now to bring new technologies and solutions. And they are very, very happy. I know the French president very well, and he is very impatient to have my 1,000 solutions in order to go further.”

So is Piccard giving up exploring for policymaking? Or does he have another adventure up his sleeve? His answer to that question makes it sound as if the filmmakers behind “The Impossible Flight” should start thinking about a sequel.

“Will there be another adventure in a couple of years? I don’t know,” he said. “But if yes, I will call you to let you know.”

“The Impossible Flight” makes its debut on PBS’ NOVA on Jan. 31. Check local TV listings. Filmmakers Noel Dockstader and Quinn Kanaly have also created a theatrical feature film about the Solar Impulse project, titled “Point of No Return.” That movie is currently on the film-festival circuit and may soon turn up at a theater or on a video-on-demand channel near you.