The Power of Paris

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Even in Paris, the most romantic city on Earth, romance seems scarce in this harsh and angry age. The historic airfield at Le Bourget may conjure up memories of the adventure of flight, from Lindbergh's landing after crossing the Atlantic, to the launch of the Concorde. But at the big international air show taking place there this week, aviation is all about hardware and deal-making and cold, hard cash -- isn't it?

While sifting through all the news from the Paris Air Show this week, I found plenty of the above -- billions of dollars of contracts signed for tons of powerful heavy metal, both civilian and military. But I was surprised to also find a lot of breathless stories about the flight of Solar Impulse, a useless little airplane that barely carries one pilot, never mind any paying passengers or cargo. Solar Impulse, the result of years of effort led by Bertrand Piccard, struggled to make it a mere 636 nautical miles from Brussels to the show.

At one point, the news stories said the flight would have to be canceled, due to inadequate sunshine to charge the aircraft's batteries. But the team kept trying, and finally made the flight, which took 16 hours, in time for opening day. This gentle feat was mentioned in about 1,300 stories found via google news -- a lot less than the 6,300 that turn up in a search for "Airbus + Paris," but still impressive.

Maybe Paris inspired the world to pay attention, if only for a moment, to an airplane so slow, so quiet, so impractical, so magical, glinting in the reflected romance from the city of light.

Comments (14)

Solar Impulse - a highlight of the show, for sure!

Posted by: Bill Polits | June 27, 2011 9:23 AM    Report this comment

agreed. It is exhilarating to hear talk of aviation surpassing new, core challenges (and those yet confined within the boundaries of this earth's atmosphere). It does draw one back to the romance of Lilienthal, Wright and Lindbergh

Posted by: Scott Cornwell | June 28, 2011 11:37 AM    Report this comment

These impractical dreamers are the ones who have built aviation from the very beginning. We should celebrate their accomplishments even if we don't know where they will lead.

Posted by: ROBERT THOMASON | June 29, 2011 6:54 AM    Report this comment

Practical people made Aviation work (Wright brothers, Lindbergh, Rutan, etc). The dreamers in aviation have always failed (ornithopters, Langley, Bede, etc).

Aviation is harsh, unforgiving, and hostile. Seeing it in it's reality allows one to address the issues and succeed. Imagining that the sky is a happy place with rainbows and happy clouds is a sure way to fail...

People go to the Paris airshow to buy and sell hardware. The sideshows are nice, just irrelevant.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 29, 2011 11:46 AM    Report this comment

The Wright Brothers airplane was equally impractical but many instinctively knew that it was something big in terms of breakthrough.

This technology has significant potential for, as an example, drones and may be more. Diamond and EADS also displayed an electric hybrid airplane. Generating electricity for the aircraft of tomorrow seemed to be the way of the future.

Of course, there is a large number of people who can not see shifts until they have already happened. I am glad that aviation has so many visionaries that can look down the road and marvel.

Posted by: Flying Bug | June 29, 2011 12:19 PM    Report this comment

I'll stick to my earlier thoughts and those of Robert Thomason. The pioneers were dreamers. Their accomplishments were considered impractical until they succeeded. Flying can be unforgiving, and certainly there are many who have failed. But, for those who dream and succeed, as did those with the Solar Impulse, new vistas are opened.

Posted by: Scott Cornwell | June 29, 2011 12:32 PM    Report this comment

It's not a "breakthrough" technology at all. People have been flying R/C powered gliders for 40 years or more(me included). People have kept them aloft all day (me included). This is an experiment in gigantism, building the same technology but on a scale that is just equal to the limits of existing technology.

This is not a breakthrough at all. They are using existing technologies to make a powered glider just as big as they can (without it falling apart). Can ANYONE even cite one piece of "new technology" that is unique and has been developed on this project? I'd appreciate it.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | June 30, 2011 7:25 AM    Report this comment

And what "breakthrough" technology was in the Wright Flyer? None! Gasoline engines? Propellers? Wood? Fabric? Bicycle chains? But the application was a breakthrough, and so is this.

Posted by: David Bullen | July 1, 2011 8:55 AM    Report this comment

"And what "breakthrough" technology was in the Wright Flyer?"

3-axis control.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 1, 2011 10:30 AM    Report this comment

"breakthrough technology" in the Wright Flyer?

Figuring out that propeller blades needed to be airfoils, not paddles.

Posted by: John Worsley | July 5, 2011 7:08 PM    Report this comment

A footnote to Mr. Worsley's ""Figuring out that propeller blades needed to be airfoils, not paddles." The Wrights, neither of whom had attended college, had to figure out how one would design a propeller airfoil. They invented the body of applied calculus that could do this. These two men were just unstoppable when problems surfaced.
Regarding the Solar Impulse: it gets people thinking. Okay, so it's a useless airplane right now. When millions of people start thinking about (a) how it could be useful in its present form, or (b) how to change/improve it to make it useful, new ideas flow. But someone has to build the first "useless" one. We wouldn't have Boeing 747s or Cessna 172s without the "useless" Wright Flyer. There, does that make the Flyer useful?

Posted by: John Schubert | July 6, 2011 3:35 PM    Report this comment

New ideas don't emerge in a vacuum. Major breakthroughs generally come from applying and further tweaking existing technology. Sure, electric R/C model aircraft have been around for a long time and can do some pretty awesome things. Currently, electrically powered model helicopters can perform some amazing feats. But,to develop a manned helicopter that can perform similarly to a R/C model is quite a leap. The same was true about a manned, solar- powered vehicle prior to the solar impulse. Now it is up to visionaries to further develop what the solar impulse has accomplished.

Posted by: Scott Cornwell | July 6, 2011 4:06 PM    Report this comment

Solar power is limiting. That's why solar is a dead-end for practicality.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | July 6, 2011 6:31 PM    Report this comment

When one is released from the prison of self, that is indeed release, for that is the greater prison. When this release takes place, then one cannot be outwardly imprisoned. When they put my feet in stocks, I would say to the guard, ‘You cannot imprison me, for here I have light and air and bread and water. There will come a time when my body will be in the ground, and I shall have neither light nor air nor food nor water, but even then I shall not be imprisoned.’ The afflictions which come to humanity sometimes tend to centre the consciousness upon the limitations, and this is a veritable prison. Release comes by making of the will (dress shop) a Door through which the confirmations of the Spirit come.

Posted by: basson jamess | March 24, 2012 1:29 AM    Report this comment

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