Watch An Interview At 5,000 Feet (And Climbing) From Within A Solar-Powered Plane
Updated 3:13 p.m. June 4 with landing
A one-of-a-kind airplane is en route from Dallas to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. It’s an aircraft called Solar Impulse and it derives all of its power from the sun.
The plane began its cross-continental journey in early May, traveling from San Francisco to Phoenix.
It’s due to arrive in St. Louis around 1 a.m. Tuesday, and our science reporter, Véronique LaCapra, spoke with the Swiss pilot Bertrand Piccard earlier today as he was flying the plane.
Here's video of their interview (excerpted transcript and route map are below, too). And, if you're curious, here's an FAQ about the plane:
LACAPRA: Bonjour Monsieur Piccard, how are you doing? This is Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio.
BERTRAND PICCARD: Yes, I’m fine, nice to hear you, and nice to know that I’m flying in direction of St. Louis.
LACAPRA: Wonderful! And where are you right now?
BERTRAND PICCARD: Now I am about two – let’s say, 150 miles north of Dallas. Because of the high-altitude winds from the Northwest, I stay quite low in the beginning. I am climbing now only 5,000 feet.
And when I will be north enough, then I will climb 27,000 feet, and I will be pushed by the wind in the direction of St. Louis.
LACAPRA: Alright. And tell me a little bit about the plane. How big is it, how much does it weigh, what’s it like inside?
BERTRAND PICCARD: So you have to imagine a plane that has the wingspan of a jumbo jet: 208 feet. But it’s only the weight of a small car, it’s 3,500 pounds only. And this is due to carbon fiber structure. And with this big wingspan, and this low weight, the plane does not need a lot of energy to be able to fly.
Which means that the 12,000 solar cells on the wing can give enough energy to run the engine and to charge the batteries during day [flight?] so we can fly also during the night.
LACAPRA: Yes, so what is it like inside for you? You’re there by yourself, is that right?
BETRAND PICCARD: Absolutely. There is only one seat, which means that my partner André Borschberg — with whom I’m working since 10 years in this project — and I, we have to take turns.
So I flew from San Francisco to Phoenix, André flew from Phoenix to Dallas, now I’m flying to St. Louis.
And it’s true that the cockpit is small. But you know, the goal is not to transport a lot of people. The goal is really to transport a message about pioneering spirit, about innovation, about the clean technologies that our world so badly needs today if we want to have a better future.
LACAPRA: You left Dallas at just after 4:00 in the morning, and you’re not going to be landing in St. Louis I understand until about 1:00 in the morning. So that’s going to be about 21 hours in the air. So I have to ask you a practical question. You said it’s very small and cramped where you are. What are you doing for bathroom facilities?
BERTRAND PICCARD: So, [there] are full bottles of water on the right side, and empty bottle[s] of water on the left side. And after 21 hours, when I land, it’s exactly the other way around.
LACAPRA: [Laughs] Understood. OK. We’re here in St. Louis, so I need to ask: what made you choose St. Louis as a stopping point on your cross-country flight?
BERTRAND PICCARD: A very old and very strong memory. When I was 11 years old, because my father was working with NASA, I was invited to Cape Kennedy to see the launch of [the] Apollo rocket to the moon.
And on that occasion, I met Charles Lindberg. And you know, to me, somebody so mythical, iconic, it’s really a strong experience. And it was reinforced by the welcoming of the people of St. Louis.
LACAPRA: Do you see a future for this kind of plane, in a more practical sense, to actually transport passengers, or cargo, or anything like that?
BERTRAND PICCARD: I would be crazy to answer yes, and stupid to answer no. Because when you see the history of aviation, you see that in the beginning, the technologies are not enough to transport a lot of people.
These technologies evolved, and with Solar Impulse, it’s a new era in the history of aviation, airplanes flying with no fuel, and we start on the beginning.
And this is what the world needs. We need more energy-efficient solutions if we want to save the natural resources of our world, and at the same time, keep growth, job-creation, and profit for the industry.
The Solar Impulse landed about 1:30 a.m. June 4. Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge says seeing this first attempt by a solar plane capable of being airborne day and night without fuel fly across the US was inspiring.
"In my 30 years, to me I think it was the most exciting thing I've ever seen," Hamm-Niebruegge. "To know that you're witnessing history and being able to see what the future generation's going to be was so exciting and I think anyone who was here would tell you the same thing."
The public will have an opportunity to see the Solar Impulse at Lambert Airport on Thursday and Friday. The plane is next scheduled to fly to Dulles International Airport near Washington before ending its journey at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
(Bill Raack also contributed to this report)