Nature’s vagaries threatened Solar Impulse’s planned flight all week at the 2011 Paris Air Show at Le Bourget Field, but the clouds parted company, the sun shone brilliantly, and the giant airplane delighted the huge crowd with its extremely slow pass down the main runway.
Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, co-founders of the project, had accomplished what they set out to do – make believers in a clean, bright future of emissions-free flight.
According to the project’s web site, “Gilles Fournier, President of Le Bourget airshow, declared afterwards: ‘This flight was the highlight of the air show. 30’000 people saw it this morning, and there was a very strong emotion amongst the crowd. This very intense moment reminded me of the prestigious history of Le Bourget air show. Solar Impulse is at the heart of this tradition.’”
Almost 350,000 Air Show visitors and 3,000 members of the “international media” had an opportunity to view the 204-foot span machine in its hangar, which it shared with the EADS electric Cri-Cri.
This disparity in scale, despite a comic overtone, had to cause viewers to see the obvious possibilities. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, in his opening ceremony speech, certainly saw them. “Solar Impulse is a reminder that we must think of more energy efficient aircraft solutions right away, shaping the future of aviation also means creating sustainable aircraft.”
The project founders were heartened by the widespread enthusiasm, Piccard noting, “The feedback here has been extremely encouraging.” Borschberg added, “They showed great interest in our project.”
Those showing great interest included Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Transport; Louis Gallois, the Chief Executive Officer of EADS; Christine Lagarde, Minister for Economic Affairs, Finance and Industry; Jean-Paul Huchon, the President of the Ile de France Region; and Zoltan Kazatsay, the Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Energy and Transport Committee.
Bernard Schopfer’s Solar Impulse blog entry summed up the emotional nature of the event.
“Today all superlatives are allowed! This morning the Solar aircraft HB-SIA provided a poetic, scientific, environmental and human climax to the Paris Air Show when Markus Scherdel gave a spectacular flight demonstration.
“This was the culmination of a fantastic week for the whole Solar Impulse team. Every one of the 85 team members was on site to watch this highlight: engineers, electricians, builders and logistics people, who are normally dotted between Lausanne, Payerne and Dubendorf….
“Everyone held their breath. The propellers started turning and the plane was airborne in less than 10 seconds…The public was stunned. There was thunderous applause. After a week of enjoying fabulous displays, sometimes spectacular, but always noisy and polluting, Solar Impulse suddenly offered an astonishing alternative solution. HB-SIA soared above their heads slowly, majestically and silently.
“Bertrand Piccard, who MC’ed the event, was as emotional as his audience. The HB-SIA flew its course perfectly. On its approach to land, it was buffeted slightly by turbulence, but Markus Scherdel managed the situation with a calm hand.
“The ground crew guided the HB-SIA wings and it came to rest just metres from an Airbus A-380. Two symbols of the future of aviation. Emotions overflowed and people had tears pouring down their faces.
“When a journalist suggested to [the President of Airbus] that Solar Impulse was stealing the limelight from Airbus, the CEO burst out laughing… ‘It’s true, we’re a bit jealous of you! But more seriously, I think that it’s important to retain an element of imagination in this industrial environment, and that’s what Solar Impulse is doing. Bravo!’”