Solar Impulse, a Constant Challenge

Sunday 15th May 2016

There have been a lot of questions recently about why we decided to fly to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Indeed, we had initially planned to go to Kansas City, Missouri, either directly or through Albuquerque, New Mexico. What we had in mind was to position ourselves south of the Rocky Mountains in Phoenix, Arizona and then wait for the right weather to fly North-East over  the Tornado Alley, if possible in one go, to get closer to New York’s latitude. But a change of plan brought us to a different state. 

As the days went by in Phoenix, we became more and more anxious that we would not be able to continue the adventure for a while. This would result in delaying the crossing of the Atlantic, a leg we would like to be ready for as soon as possible. After June 21st, the days will start getting shorter, meaning more pressure on us to move quickly and thus potentially wrong decisions. 

So I decided to shake things up. On Tuesday morning (10th of May), I called our engineers at the Monaco Mission Control Center for two hours to explore and debate about all our options. We discovered that two days later, we would have a weather window allowing us to go East but not to reach Kansas City safely due to high wind from the North West. So we could either:
Stay in Phoenix and wait until the weather allowed us to fly to Kansas City as planned. But I never like waiting as you can imagine.
Go to Albuquerque as a first step, set up the mobile hangar to protect Si2 and wait for the next weather window. But there’s often unexpected wind there, and using the mobile hangar now would also make it more difficult to use on the following stop, therefore limiting our options. Si2 is even more vulnerable on the ground than in the air, so the flight doesn’t stop at the landing. The time that the plane spends in a hangar must also be carefully planned and executed. We have to look at the global mission, from Abu Dhabi to Abu Dhabi, to minimize the risk of losing the airplane.
Find a new airport in the Tornado Alley, on condition that we could either find a fixed hangar or set up a solid tent (which would take a week to organize) to protect the airplane against stormy weather. As waiting idly was not an option, that’s exactly what we set out to do.

After going through dozens of American towns with a fine-tooth comb, a potential winner came out: Tulsa, Oklahoma. As soon as we heard that an airport had been identified, two of our team members packed their bags to be ready to fly to Tulsa and check it out and potentially start preparing the logistics on site. Meanwhile, Gregory Blatt, our managing director, got on the phone with the airport to obtain a preliminary approval of the flight which he did in a few hours. We identified several big hangars on Google Earth, which got us dreaming of finding a hangar available to host Si2. Like a true magician, Greg found out that American Airlines had a hangar that we might be able to use. After discussing with them, they accepted to share it with us, as soon as the next day! You can imagine the cheering and clapping in Phoenix when he announced the good news. It seemed possible that we could fly there on Thursday, assuming everyone was entirely focused on solving all remaining issues. From a depressing situation we suddenly had a great opportunity in front of us!

When you work for a project like Solar Impulse, it’s important to enjoy the unpredictable. Because you will get a lot of it! Exploration endeavors which try to build something revolutionary are a constant challenge. Whatever you plan, and you need a plan to organize all the team activities, will have to be changed and adapted. That’s why I refuse to let the team become complacent and am always pushing them to expand their known territory and flexibility. We need to develop a culture where change is welcomed and appreciated. That’s how we enhance our team performance and are able to push further the limits we set ourselves. It has to be done step by step to maintain the risk at an acceptable level, but we constantly need to question our assumptions to make progress.

Bertrand’s landing in Tulsa on May 12th after an 18-hour flight was thus made possible by a combination of three things: great teamwork and mobility, the extraordinary reactivity of Tulsa International Airport and American Airlines, which once again proves the adaptability and pioneering spirit of the United States, and the fact that Solar Impulse is now becoming a well-known and respected project.

The weather won’t be good in the days to come so we will be staying a few days in our new home, while we search for a weather window to leave Tornado Alley. Our goal is to reach New York as quickly as possible. We’re very happy to be here and to discover a new part of the country. In each place we stop we meet wonderful people and create new friendships: one of the great aspects of the project.

André Borschberg