From Coast To Coast with The Power Of The Sun

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Weather permitting, a solar-power airplane will embark on a cross-country trip on Wednesday. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin speaks with Bertrand Piccard, one of pilots and creators of Solar Impulse, which will make an American tour stopping in Phoenix, Dallas, Washington, D.C. and New York.


Later this week, weather permitting, a solar-powered airplane will take off on a trip from the San Francisco Bay area all the way across the country to New York. The Solar Impulse can fly both day and night. But it will take two pilots to pull it off. Swiss aviator Bertrand Piccard is co-founder and chairman of Solar Impulse. He and his business partner, Andre Borschberg, will take turns flying the craft across the States. They will stop in Phoenix, Dallas and Washington D.C., spending about 10 days in each city, before arriving at their final destination, New York, later this summer. Bertrand Piccard joins us from Woodside, California. Welcome to the program.

BERTRAND PICCARD: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Tell us about the airplane.

PICCARD: So, you have to imagine an airplane that has the wingspan of a jumbo jet and the weight of a small car. And this makes it so efficient that it can use the solar energy to fly day and night with absolutely no fuel.

MARTIN: And how big is the cockpit?

PICCARD: It is like small economic class seats, but we are building now a new airplane that could fly around the world in 2015. The second airplane will have a cockpit bigger. The pilot can lie down. It will be like a business class seat. Because the flights, for example, when we cross the Atlantic or the Pacific, will last for three to six days with one single pilot onboard. So, of course, the pilot will need to be able to stretch, to rest - they will be on autopilot. But on this first Solar Impulse airplane, it doesn't allow yet to cross oceans because it doesn't have an autopilot and the cockpit is very, very small.

MARTIN: You're only 40 miles per hour, so this isn't necessarily going to be the future of commercial flight. Your purpose is larger, to just draw awareness to the possibility and potential of solar power; is that right?

PICCARD: You are absolutely right, yes. Our goal is not to make a revolution in air transport. Our goal is to make the revolution in the mindset of the people. When they think about energy, you see that if the entire world was using these same technologies, like batteries, like lighting systems with LED, if we were massively using these technologies in our world, we could already divide by two our energy consumption and produce half of the rest with renewable sources.

MARTIN: Each leg of the journey is how many hours?

PICCARD: It will be between 20 and 24 hours.

MARTIN: So, how does that work? You said there is no autopilot. Do you just not sleep during that time?

PICCARD: No, no, you don't sleep. You know, when you prepare a project like that, once you sit in the cockpit, you are so happy that you are finally making the flight, the last of your wish is to sleep. You hope to enjoy every minute of it.

MARTIN: Bertrand Piccard is co-founder and chairman of Solar Impulse. He is also one of the pilots of the aircraft, which will soon be making its way across country. Thanks very much and bon voyage.

PICCARD: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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