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Calculated Risk-Taking For A Cause

– Richard Averett

Some risk-taking is just nuts. Some is for ego or individual pursuit. And some is for a cause bigger than self. I plead no comment on the first two: we’re all different and in different places in our lives. But when it comes to causes, I’m hooked.

My wife and I recently saw a movie titled “Point of No Return”, a documentary. It is the story of the 16+ years of trying to develop and fly a solar-powered plane around the world. Just to get to the point of starting the actual flying, they had to assemble a team of engineers, meteorologist, pilots, ground crews, on and on. Then, they had to develop the technology – with the wingspan of a 747 and the weight of a passenger car, the technology push was leading edge. When the actual trip was planned, consisting of 17 legs over five months, the weather had to be just right or the plane could be destroyed in turbulence. The title references several stages in the flight where if the pilot (there were two pilots for the whole trip, but only room for one at a time) went beyond a certain point in a leg there was no alternative to continuing – except failure. The most critical stage was a 5,500 mile trip over the Pacific. They needed five plus days of perfect weather. If the weather changed, there was a limited window to return to Japan. After that, there was no choice but to go for it.

The journey began with a celebration, but the schedule soon hit delays. Weather and/or mechanical delays caused the crew to wait before starting new flight segments. Months dragged on. Finally, when the plane arrived in Japan, weather and a technical problem added five months of additional delay before starting the first and longest Pacific segment.

No one wants to be responsible for someone else’s harm. Nor do we want to feel part of an effort that failed to move the objective forward, possibly resulting in losing ground. Often people see the lack of achieving the stated goal to be a failure, waste, or a squandered opportunity. Maybe the goal was unworthy of the effort and cost.

The whole team had put years of time, millions of dollars, their passion and sense of self into the goal of flying around the world on solar power only. But if that were it, if that were the sole reason for all this trouble, the challenge would have been compelling only for the team – not for the rest of us. What this effort could lead to, pushing the technology to a two-person solar plane, then ten, then 50 passenger, in the face of rapidly escalating climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, could give us hope beyond a solo flight around the world. This is our generation’s moon shot.

“This very audacious courage – we need this kind of spirit to change this world.”
BAN KI-MOON, Former UN Secretary-General

“Huge step forward. It’s absolutely extraordinary. It’s pioneering clean energy.”

After five months on the ground in Japan the former fighter pilot took off. The weather changed as they neared the point of no return. Instrumentation was also acting up. It would not be certain that the pilot could be recovered if he had to bail out at 28,000 feet over the Pacific. The plane could be broken into fragments by the turbulence. The two pilots, one in the air and the other in Japan, conferred with the team. The team said no; the pilots felt this was their last chance to push solar flight to the next level. Without the ultimate “victory” or stated objective, the value of the effort is diminished in the eyes of the public, governments, and sponsors. And there would be little chance of a do-over – the team, the sponsors and the enthusiasm would be nearly impossible to resurrect. The pilots took the calculated risks for a cause greater than self.

A year and a half after taking off on the first leg of its journey, Solar Impulse returned to the start, safely touching down in Abu Dhabi. As the moon shot did in the ‘60s, culminating in a human being walking on the moon in 1969, the Solar Impulse’s round the world success will spawn innovation and dreams beyond its accomplishment on July 26, 2016.

At the local government level, we may not think our dreams are grand. But they make a difference and can change the trajectory of individuals and communities.

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