Solar-Powered Plane Aims To Fly Around The World


solar-powered-planeThe following script is from “Around the World in 20 Days” which aired on Dec. 2, 2012. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Tom Anderson, producer.

In 1903, the Wright brothers became the first men to fly. Twenty-four years later, Charles Lindbergh became the first to fly over the Atlantic. Coming soon…another possible breakthrough. Two Swiss gentlemen have built a plane which they hope to fly across the United States next spring and then around the world without burning an ounce of fuel. The plane is called Solar Impulse and it’s powered entirely by the sun. It is not the first solar airplane, but it is the first that can fly at night. Thousands of solar cells on its wings transmit enough energy to batteries to keep it in the sky from sunset to sunrise. Solar Impulse has already flown more than 2,500 miles from Switzerland to North Africa and back. The goal: to make it around the world in 20 days and 20 nights.

[“Solar Impulse you are cleared to proceed. Have a good flight.”]

It looks like it’s flown straight out of Jules Verne. It’s so light it weighs less than an SUV and needs only 165 yards of runway to take off compared to over a mile for a commercial jet. It has unnaturally long wings. Rather than fly, the plane seems to glide, like a giant dragonfly.

The plane was created by Bertrand Piccard and his business partner, Andre Borschberg and if there ever was an odd couple, you’re looking at them. Andre is a pilot and an engineer but never worked on building an airplane. Until six years ago, Bertrand didn’t even know how to fly one. He’s a psychiatrist, an expert in hypnosis, and one of the most intense human beings we’ve ever met.

Bob Simon: We saw the plane take off and land last night. Never seen anything like it.

Bertrand Piccard: An airplane like this doesn’t exist anywhere else.

Bob Simon: And very recently, it existed nowhere but in your imagination.

Bertrand Piccard: Yeah, that’s true.

If Piccard was the dreamer, he relied on his partner Borschberg to be the nuts and bolts guy. Piccard knew he wanted to build something that could fly without using fossil fuels. That was the goal. But he couldn’t explain — and didn’t even know — what that something was going to be.

Andre Borschberg: Was this going to be an airplane? Was this going to be an air ship? Was this going to be a mixture of these solutions, so lighter than air, or something flying?

Piccard and Borschberg were a good team. One could think outside the box. The other could fly there. Piccard started dreaming about the plane in 1999. They raised $120 million from corporate sponsors and investors. A test pilot in 2009 flew the plane for the first time. It managed to rise only three feet off the ground and stayed airborne for just 28 seconds. They called it the “flea hop.” But it was a high-tech flea, built with extremely light-weight material made from carbon fibers. The wheels are smaller than the wheels on a kid’s tricycle. This state of the art plane sometimes looks like it had been put together by a 6-year-old with an erector set.

Bob Simon: What is this?

Bertrand Piccard: This is the carbon fiber piece that makes the profile of the air foil on the leading edge of the airplane.

Bob Simon: And this weighs…nothing?

Bertrand Piccard: 91 grams.

Andre Borschberg: A fifth of a pound.

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