Swiss mechanical watches have been linked to various projects. We've climbed Everest, been to the moon, travelled around the world, and all sorts of other feats, but today, the great challenge is to do momentous things cleanly. A landmark in this direction was reached on 8 July 2010, at an airfield in Switzerland. A plane landed after having flown all night, powered only by the energy collected in its solar cells the day before. Why is this so important? Because it means that continuous flight, day and night, is possible even for an aircraft powered only by solar cells. The objective is to fly around the world non-stop, using only sunlight for power.
The plane is named Solar Impulse, and the project is backed by watchmaking company Omega. Stephen Urquhart, president of Omega, described this step in the project. “With this first night flight the Solar Impulse project has reached an important milestone. It's clear that the ground-breaking technology is working perfectly. It is also a significant step which will convince many people that the ambitious aim of circling the globe in an airplane, flying day and night and powered only by the sun, will be a reality in the near future. It's an exciting time and Omega is proud to be part of this adventure.”
Pilot Andre Borschberg was faced with some unusual problems. He flew alone, and had a special jacket to help keep him awake. Its sleeves start vibrating if the aircraft tilts beyond five degrees. Borschberg, formerly a jet fighter pilot, was monitored by Solar Impulse project chief Bertrand Piccard.
The plane has no automatic pilot, and so the pilot has to remain permanently alert for up to 25 hours for the day-and-night project. Its wingspan of 63 metres - the same as an Airbus A340 - along with its very light weight means that it is highly sensitive to air conditions. Borschberg had oxygen but no heating, and the temperature at 8,000 metres height reaches -28°C even during the day. He ate high-energy bars, sandwiches, French rice pudding, and drank some coffee. He had to relieve himself in plastic bags.
Omega's support for the project is not just in terms of capital. In 2007, the company developed a performance simulation and testing system which enabled the Solar Impulse development team to simulate the airplane’s electrical systems.
The project also benefits from an easy-to-read instrument developed by Omega and in particular by astronaut and Swatch Group Board Member Claude Nicollier, designed to help the pilot during landing. Omega's engineers also provided their knowledge of hybrid propulsion systems for the Solar Impulse project that they had gained during the development of the Swatchmobile (the original joint-venture Smart car project, originally designed to have a hybrid engine) in the 1990s.
Another piece of technology developed by Omega's specialists was the landing lights system. Any aircraft flying by night has to have some lights so that the pilot can see where he is going on the final approach to the runway, but the overall design parameters meant that the system could not weigh any more than 2 kg! The system is based on LED bulbs, amplified by lenses, and protected by windows made from the same plastic used in Swatch watches.
Omega have released a watch created to celebrate the Solar Impulse project. The Speedmaster GMT Solar Impulse watch, like the plane, has an innovative power plant, the Omega Calibre 3603 movement, with a co-axial escapement and free sprung balance that ensure accuracy and reliability. The watch is a COSC-certified chronometer, and it has a column-wheel chronograph mechanism. In terms of design, it reflects the pioneering, sports approach that fuels the Solar Impulse project, with a dramatic, Speedmaster-influenced black carbon-fibre dial, three slightly recessed black chronograph and small seconds counters, and the small HB-SIA lettering in ochre at the 12 o'clock position. The letters are the Solar Impulse project's registration code, Hotel Bravo Solar Impulse Alpha.
The watch has a central hour, minute, and chronograph seconds hands. A central GMT hand has an aircraft-shaped pointer, which completes one rotation every 24 hours, and can be used to read a second time zone. The titanium bezel is fixed with a matt black aluminium ring, and it is marked "Tachymeter base 1000" in orange.
The watch has a feature that boy scouts may remember: there is a counterweight on the central GMT hand, with an indicator arrow and the word "North". This can be used for compass orientation when the sun is shining. Just point the hour hand in the direction of the sun, and then adjust the GMT hand to bisect the angle between the hour hand and the watch's 12 o'clock position. The counterweight on the GMT hand will point north (in the northern hemisphere). The case is in brushed titanium, with a titanium bracelet, or a rubber strap. The textured finish on the inside of the rubber strap is a reference to the Solar Impulse's carbon fibre honeycomb composite structure.
The Solar Impulse project continues. It was initiated seven years ago, and its objective is to reach ocean crossings, transcontinental and round-the-world flights by about 2013.
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