A serial explorer, aviator, pioneer thinker in sustainable development, and Breitling Explorer Squad member, Bertrand Piccard spoke to Gary Cotterell at the launch of the new Breitling Navitimer about 1 400 economically profitable ways to preserve the environment, the strategy of a wasp and his favourite tool watch, which remains a symbol of his undying curiosity about the world he’s on a journey to save.
Breitling creative director Sylvain Berneron has given the most iconic aviator watch a refreshing modern update. What are your initial thoughts on the new Navitimer?
I admire that Breitling dared to do something so audacious, especially with the different dial colours. They’ve taken an icon, something really traditional, and adapted it to our time. They’ve added something that was maybe missing before and at the same time what I love is that they are not just selling a watch, they’re promoting a message of the journey. It’s so important, because everyone on Earth is on a journey and the goal is to succeed as well as we can. We just need to look at the new campaign with basketball star Giannis Antetokounmpo and ballet dancer Misty Copeland to know that there can be opportunities for all to fulfil our dreams or make something out of the journey while we find our way in life.
There is also the nostalgic aspect, looking back to the halcyon days of travel and commercial flight.
The origin of the Navitimer is in the 1950s, which was an incredible time for innovation. It was a time when people still had the capacity to be astonished by what was new. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were just discovering airplanes, cars, going to space, new machines for industry, new types of engines. All the world exhibitions were visited by people who saw what “modernity” looked like for the first time. This watch comes from this period. It’s a period that I loved as a child, discovering the first technologies that were becoming available to the average person. I remember in 1964, in Switzerland, there was a national exhibition with the first 360-degree movie theatre. This was something completely
new. Today, everything seems “normal”. I was living in the US in the 1960s, watching the first Apollo missions at Cape Kennedy. So everything that comes from that period of time has a big meaning for me.
Do you think there are any comparisons to be drawn between that post-war period and our post-Covid world of today?
People do not have the same sense of astonishment as they had after the Second World War. People were relieved and excited to finally have peace and peaceful development. I think now, after Covid, people have seen what is wrong [with much of that development] and realised there is way too much of everything. It’s no longer about more development but finding a way to be more reasonable, efficient, and less wasteful. We need to consume more locally, instead of bringing foods from the other side of the world. We need to make our own energy with renewable sources.
Exploration is about discovery and learning, as well as goals and challenges. In the traditional sense, it’s also about conquering and empire building. What does being an explorer today mean to you?
Exploration today is not about discovering new territories; it’s about finding new ways to think and new ways to improve the quality of life on Earth. It’s a return to nature, working with nature. It’s back to common-sense technologies that protect the environment. Like Breitling’s involvement in the recovery and recycling of fishing nets from the oceans to produce their Econyl watch straps. This is what humans have to do now. This is the exploration of the 21st century.
A small luxury-watch company can’t single-handedly save the planet, but can lead by example and change the mindset of consumers.
Absolutely. A popular luxury brand has more leverage with consumers than a green activist who says you need to use more sustainable materials. If a luxury watchmaker says, “We need to use recycled boxes,” then the customer takes note. You make sustainability fashionable, exciting, and respectful. If other brands follow, that’s going to have an impact.
On making things fashionable, let’s return to the new Navitimer and your favourite dial colour. You are wearing the 43mm steel B01 Chronograph with a light-green dial, but will no doubt wear them all.
They haven’t made life easier with all these wonderful colour choices. The Navitimer is an evolution of the aviation watch and it is not typical for such a watch to have these colours. This introduces the aviation watch to fashion with a story that’s aviation-inspired but also so much more. You take them out of the cockpit but they still retain the symbolism.
You obviously rely on tools and your own squads during solo flights. But do you keep a backup mechanical watch?
Of course. But the difference between the balloon and the solar plane is that for the balloon you look mainly at the hours and with the airplane the minutes are crucial.
Because you have to be very, very precise with a solar airplane. There are moments when you have to descend really slowly, so you have to be very precise. The way you fly with a balloon is a bit more romantic. You go with the wind and don’t have to be as precise.
When you fail, try again but differently, really differently.
So, working closely with the natural elements?
Precisely. The atmosphere has different layers of wind and each layer has another direction and another speed. So, even for Solar Impulse [the solar-powered plane in which Bertrand completed the first circumnavigation of the globe with no fuel in 2016], it was important. But, of course, for the balloon, it was crucial, because it’s your only propulsion. The weatherman is always communicating with me to help me find the altitude that has that desired wind direction and then [I] decide whether to go up or down at that moment.
How precise is this?
It can be a few metres.
You really are at the mercy of the elements.
Yes, but you use the elements. With Solar Impulse, there was a moment when I was in a jet stream. My normal speed was 45km/h but I was going 230km/h because of the jet stream pushing me very, very fast. That was over Bangladesh.
Are any new adventures on the cards?
There are two ideas that are only now made possible because related technology has evolved. It’s flying around the world in an airship powered purely by solar that can transport several people and do it non-stop. This has never been done before. Renewable energies have never allowed something to go around the world nonstop. And it would be a fantastic platform to speak to children, schools, universities, and governments to promote solutions to protect the environment.
How long would such a journey take?
We are busy making the simulations. Probably, if we go east, we‘ll do it in 25 days and if we go west we’ll do it in 40 days.
What renewable energies are you planning to use?
Solar, and you store the solar energy in batteries and hydrogen.
Yes, but this is pure energy from the sun and then hybrid storage.
How big is your team?
With the Solar Impulse Foundation, there are 49 people. When I was flying Solar Impulse, there were 150 people, including engineers, technicians, and mission controllers. That was a really big thing. I did not know it would be so difficult. Doing something that has never been done takes more time and is more difficult than doing the obvious. But what was fantastic was the quality of the team. Because it was difficult, because people thought it was impossible, we had brilliant talents, really skilled people. This is because they came to us knowing it would be difficult, knowing there were challenges, and they came because they wanted to find a solution. That was really great. I have a lot of respect for the people in the team.
Our former president, Nelson Mandela, said: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” Today there is growing recognition of the value of failure, which is being taught to kids at schools and even in business studies. Please share some of your greatest lessons from failure, which have ultimately led to remarkable success.
My biggest failure was the Breitling Orbiter 1, the first attempt at a nonstop flight around the world by balloon. Richard Branson had failed. Steve Fossett had failed. And I was taking off from Switzerland and explained that I was going to succeed, that it would be just three weeks in the jet stream. Six hours after take-off, I was down in the Mediterranean Sea because we had a fuel leak. That was miserable. I returned with one square metre of the balloon’s envelope as a souvenir before it sank.
The press conference was right there. I was wet, with bare feet, and crying. But the owner of Breitling was there and he said: “We’re going to try it again. I’m there with you.” With this failure, we learnt a lot. I changed a lot of things for the second attempt. That was the flight to Myanmar. We had no permission to cross China. So we had to stop in Myanmar. For each attempt, I changed the type of fuel, the shape of the balloon, the cruise strategy, and so on. And on the third attempt, I succeeded.
My competitors, on the other hand, kept failing by making the same mistakes over and over, using the wrong technologies and the wrong strategies. They did not learn. I was comparing this to the strategy of the bee and the strategy of the wasp. If you have a bee and a wasp in a room with only one window open, the bee will invariably collide with the first glazed panel it finds and fly into it repeatedly until it dies. A wasp confronted with the same situation will try all the windows before finding the way out. Wasps are able to change altitude and strategy, but not bees.
In this context, we have to distinguish between doggedness and perseverance. I told the press conference that I had the strategy of the wasp, that’s why I had success. My competitors were like the bee. When you fail, try again but differently, really differently. Challenge all the previous strategies or the previous knowledge and learnings. Never fail twice for the same reason. That would be stupid.
You come from a long line of explorers, and it would appear that the adventurous spirit is in your DNA. What lessons did you learn from your grandfather, Auguste Piccard, also a balloonist, and your father, oceanographer Jacques Piccard?
I don’t think it’s in our DNA. I think it’s in the education. I learnt three main values from my family. Curiosity, because without it you don’t try anything new. Perseverance, because without it you don’t succeed at what you try. And respect. Without respect, your success has no value. I tried to use these three values as much as I could. And I want to be useful. Solar Impulse is a useful project in terms of protecting the environment. Breitling Orbiter has been a useful project in terms of giving hope to people that they can succeed in their dreams, even if they fail.