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Solar Ship

(it's a long story)


I built a new wind tunnel model with one of the first desktop 3D printers, bought with my Minimum Viable Salary. And then I built the device to measure the forces on that model. And then the wind tunnel to test it in.

Solar Ships are a new kind of aircraft. A helium-inflated wing, half blimp, half airplane. Efficient enough that they can fly on batteries and solar power alone.

I joined the year after its founding, and there were just a handful of us at the company. We had a foam wind tunnel model and an aerospace engineering thesis. And wildly huge ambitions, with the determination to make them real.

I wrote grant applications, rendered photo-real images, and made investor pitch decks. Dozens of them. A couple even bore fruit.

This might not sound so crazy today, in a world with 25 million electric cars. But Tesla hadn't yet shipped its first Roadster when we were getting started.

I built prototype aircraft parts in barns, cutting and riveting pieces of aluminum and gluing on the fabric skins to create our ultra-light control surfaces.

I woke up in the dark to bring boxes of Tim Hortons to the team and help prepare our aircraft for test flights at dawn.

I worked at Solar Ship for 15 years.


We iterated constantly. Sitting with engineers, we would hypothesize about aerodynamic phenomena as I designed the next set of tweaked CAD geometries to test in our CFD virtual wind tunnel.

I learned about high voltage batteries and axial flux electric motors. I designed custom flexible solar panels, because the ones on the market were too heavy and inefficient.

We flew on electrons and willpower.

Sometimes flight testing went wrong. It was sobering, and frightening. The consequences of defying gravity are uncertain, and can be harsh. The laws of physics demanded respect.

It felt like being a Wright Brother, inventing a bright new future that had only been imagined, but now seemed possible if only we tried hard enough.

We built a factory for building airships. I learned how fabric is welded together, and how to create the patterns to transform 3D models into 2D panels, and then back again, into real 3D structures that floated when you filled them with helium.

We flew because we believed in the dream, in what was possible, in what we were bringing about.

I practically lived in our hangar for a year. Designing, building, testing. My (future) wife was not thrilled.


The sun may be setting on my day at Solar Ship, but the big dream lives on still.

We had built a dozen flying machines in as many years. And had planned at least a dozen more.

I immersed myself in spreadsheets and financial models, focused on the next future. I could see Excel on the inside of my eyelids.

Pivot, pivot, pivot, pivot.

Diving into freezing waters, I saw the iceberg of our accomplishments above the surface, but also a glimpse at the enormity of what we had yet to accomplish below it.

We dreamed of far more than we could ever hope to create, but the imagineering of new ideas, of the would-be, could-be possibilities. . . that was worth something, too.

I woke up in the dark to bring boxes of Tim Hortons to the team and help prepare our aircraft for test flights at dawn.

We persevered through lean times and came out the other end.

It will be someone else's dawn.


I built a new wind tunnel model using one of the first desktop 3D printers. And then I built the balance device to measure the forces on the model. And then the wind tunnel to test it in.

I learned about aerodynamics. About lift and drag coefficients. About induced drag, and centers of pressure. About longitudinal static stability, about dihedral, about Dutch roll instability modes. About aeroelasticity, and aerodynamic shape optimization.

We built new, different designs. Constantly solving problems and discovering new ones.

Without knowing it, by struggling to solve a big, hard problem, we now had the toolkit to easily solve simpler ones. The ability to remix our solutions into entirely new products.

I became a bridge between engineers and executives, knowing enough about how everything worked to translate between the different languages they spoke.

I learned how businesses work. About how teams come together, and drift apart. I learned about raising funds, about the strategic calculus and the relationship management that governs every step in a start-up.

I woke up in the dark to bring boxes of Tim Hortons to the team and help prepare our aircraft for test flights at dawn.

Model. Crunch data. Analyze. Synthesize. Repeat.

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