Methods for staying awake during a long haul get pretty tired. Seriously, you can only slap yourself in the face so many times. So when Bertrand Piccard needed to figure out how to stay alert during a 72-hour-long test in a flight simulator this week, he got creative.
Piccard is one of two pilots who will be flying the Solar Impulse around the world in 2015 without a single drop of fuel. Eventually, they say the solar-powered plane will be able to fly continuously. The only problem is figuring out how keep the pilots alive (and awake) for the duration of the flight. It took a whole team of scientists, doctors, engineers and nutritionists to do it, but the folks at Solar Impulse think they’ve finally figured it out.
Let’s start with the question of fatigue. The test that ended on Friday morning was designed to simulate a flight across the Atlantic, a journey that will take three days and three nights in the Solar Impulse, which flies at just 64.4km/h. That’s 72 hours without having extended periods of sleep — very short rests are allowed — or getting up to go to the bathroom or eating a hot meal or playing Candy Crush.
That all sounds like hell, but Piccard is actually uniquely positioned to accomplish such a feat: the former psychiatrist actually specialises in hypnosis. He used his own techniques during the flight to go into a hypnotic trance. This enabled him to fall asleep, wake up, and regain his alertness very quickly during his 20-minute rest periods. He rested only 35 times over the course of the 72-hour-long-test which adds up to a little over 11 hours of sleep — not all at once, obviously. He tried to avoid using the hypnosis tricks early in the flight, but they became standard after 40 hours.
Otherwise, Piccard survived his test much like an astronaut survives a flight into space. His body was hooked up to all kinds of medical equipment that monitored his heart rate and brainwaves. This enabled the doctors on hand to determine when he became fatigued or nervous during the test. They also conducted speed and reaction tests throughout the flight simulation to see how his responses evolved as fatigue set in. Throughout the test, he ate special freeze-dried food cooked up by nutritionists at Nestlé Health Science. When nature called, Piccard used a toilet that was built into the specialised pilot seat built by aeroplane seat designer Lantal.
The test sounds gruelling enough as it is, but the folks at Solar Impulse want to run a tougher one before Piccard takes to the skies in 2015. This means simulating the changes in air pressure, a simple-sounding adjustment that has extreme effects on the pilot. This means that Piccard will have to wear an oxygen mask and endure temperatures as low as 14 degrees. The plane will fly at 27,000 feet, so the difference in pressure won’t be as extreme as it could be. It will be uncomfortable, though, especially since Solar Impulse plans to reproduce the electric noise of the motors.
For now, Piccard is probably quite content to be able to stand up and walk. He reminded reporters at the test site (and probably himself) that the “experiment provided vital training for the round the world flight” and smiled excessively. Maybe it was relief that gave him that grin. Or maybe he was just delirious from spending 72 hours in a flight simulator.