In the spring of 2015, André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard set out to do something that no one had ever done before–fly an airplane, known as the Solar Impulse 2, around the globe without any fuel. Entirely solar-powered, the plane took 15 months to fly more than 22,000 death-defying miles. But Borschberg and Piccard succeeded–and perhaps showed the world just how powerful solar energy can be.
This week, PBS will debut The Impossible Flight, a Nova documentary film about the Solar Impulse project. Fast Company recently spoke with the film’s producers, Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstader, about spending more than a year alongside the Solar Impulse pilots and engineers.
Fast Company: Tell me about the Nova project.
In a nutshell, it’s about two men trying to fly to the moon to help save the planet. Throughout, you begin to realize just how close they are to the edge of what’s possible in terms of solar flight. They’re doing something that nobody’s done before, that’s a major technical challenge. But it also brings up a lot of psychological elements, and personality differences between people like engineers who are trained to engineer for safety and security, and non-risk, whereas the nature of adventure is to do something that’s never been done before, that’s simply not possible.
FC: What was Solar Impulse’s goal?
Quinn Kanaly: To fly around the world without a drop of fuel. They started in Abu Dhabi in March, 2015. They thought it would only take 3-5 months, and ultimately, it took about 17 months.
It was a roller coaster of emotions, of setbacks, of technical and weather-related challenges to achieve this, because it had never been been done before, and it’s really difficult. You need near-perfect weather conditions, and the team planned for years to chart a course around the Earth that would have optimal sunny conditions.
ND: But there’s no such things as always-optimal conditions. That’s the catch.
QK: It was a huge challenge from a weather perspective and a huge challenge from an engineering perspective, building something as large as a 747–to maximize solar energy capture–but as light as a car for minimal energy use while in flight. They had to save enough battery power during perpetual flight to make it through full day/night cycles. And they were completely on the edge. Every morning, they’d have about 10% battery power remaining. Anyone with a cellphone knows what that’s like, but we’re talking about men’s lives over the ocean with 5%-10% battery remaining.
FC: What would have happened if they had run out of power over the ocean?
ND: They’d be in the water. There’s nowhere to go. They had a parachute and a life raft, but that’s dodgy.
QK: The plane was made out of fabric and carbon fiber that’s as thin as paper, so if it hit the water, it shatters into pieces. They had a search and rescue plan, and the pilots had practiced ejection and parachute techniques.
FC: You mentioned the idea of flying “to the moon.” What were they trying to show the world?
ND: A lot of the plane’s technology was existing technology. But it was about how to put this plane together to do what most airplane manufacturers said wasn’t possible, or just too crazy and risky. They wanted to do something extraordinary, to inspire people to do something. There’s lots of debate about climate change–does it exist, is it bad, and their feeling was let’s just go, let’s do something, and show what’s doable. Inspire people to use solar technology because we’re not using it aggressively enough. Inspire a revolution in electric and clean technology.
QK: They say, what we can do in the air, we can do on the ground. So it’s really trying to inspire people to embrace energy efficiency in all aspects of our lives–how we build houses, and buildings, and cars and transportation.
For example, the plane’s engines are 97% efficient.
ND: Normal combustion engines lose 50% of their energy through heat.
FC: Why did you want to do this film?
QK: We saw this as a moment in history, a beginning of the 21st Century. Society faces a lot of problems, and if Solar Impulse was successful, it could be truly inspiring. Plus, it’s pure adventure. We don’t get that many adventure stories anymore, but this pushed the bounds of technology and of human experience when you think a pilot alone in the cockpit for five days and five nights.
FC: What was the biggest highlight for you as filmmakers?
QK: Finishing it.
ND: It’s true. It was meant to be maybe five months of filming, but then all these things happened, they get delayed in China because of weather. They’re not getting a window across the Pacific. They have to replace batteries. You go one week to the next, one month to the next, and then a second year. So finishing it was really a sense of achievement, of hanging in there to bring the story to the screen.
QK: As for the film itself, the one that pops to mind was filming the decision-making process mid-flight over the Pacific Ocean when they ran into serious trouble, and there’s major decisions within the team, between the engineers and the pilots, and they have to make a call which is risky and involved a man’s life. Watching that unfold and filming that was tremendously intense. To see the guts it took to make the decision, it felt like a metaphor for the guts required to make some of the big decisions coming up on a global or societal scale.
FC: What message did you want to leave the audience with?
QK: It’s not just an environmental message. The lessons can be applied to any field where there’s a challenge or where innovation is needed to find a solution. What their story shows is that through perseverance and grit and a shared commitment to a goal, they achieved what an industry said was impossible. There were times when the whole team could’ve broken up, or they could have run out of money, but they succeeded. It’s a really inspiring lesson for tackling 21st Century problems.