Could the Wright Brothers have invented the airplane under social media scrutiny?

There’s more than one way to give bad news.
There’s more than one way to give bad news.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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In a psychiatrist’s office at the bottom of the ocean, a cartoon shark named Joe is reclining on a chaise lounge, telling his shrink that he’s having “nightmares of André’ landing in Hawaii.”

Welcome to the surreal social media world of Solar Impulse 2, the world’s first continuously-flying solar-powered plane.

Piloted by two charismatic Swiss adventurers André Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard, Solar Impulse 2 is capable of flying through day and night, using nothing but energy absorbed and stored from the Sun. On March 9, after 12 years’ diligent planning, the airplane took off from Abu Dhabi, on a journey around the world.

But while circumnavigating the globe without a drop of fuel is certainly a major goal of Solar Impulse 2, it also represents an ongoing case study in the use of social media: to promote scientific innovation, to disarm naysayers and to keep stakeholders enthused.

“We sat down with our team and realized that there was a great opportunity to create a pessimistic character that wanted the plane to go down,” Vincent Colegrave, social media manager at Solar Impulse’s command center in Monaco, tells Quartz. Colegrave credits Joe the Shark as a motivator for many of Solar Impulse 2’s supporters.

Trailblazers of the skies are acutely aware of the power of social media when they’re pushing the boundaries of aerospace science. Whenever humanity does something extraordinary in the sky, it attracts unparalleled levels of visibility.

Case in point: Felix Baumgartner’s audacious jump from 24 miles’ altitude in 2012. Fueled by the marketing muscle of the Red Bull brand, Baumgartner’s leap into the history books as the first human to break the sound barrier in freefall generated immensely shareable imagery, ratcheting up over 38 million hits on YouTube.

But what happens to aviation pioneers when the trajectory veers off course? Can YouTube, Twitter and Facebook channels help save the day—and the brand? Pushing the boundaries of aerospace science usually involves considerable risk, and often danger.

Today’s aerial adventurers have a fighting chance of getting a second chance—via social media—to explain failure and dispel the proliferation of rumor when things go wrong. But it certainly wasn’t that way during the inception of aviation pioneering.

In the 1920s and 30s for example, people anticipated that airships would be the aerial paradigm of tomorrow, succeeding ocean liners. After all, airships could fly at twice the speed of ships and travel anywhere, unhindered by the geographic limitations of the coastline. Two iconic examples of that age, Britain’s R101 and Germany’s Hindenburg pushed aviation science into new scientific territory. They pioneered new technologies that were ground-breaking in terms of materials, construction techniques and navigational functionality—and they also served important PR functions.

The R101—a showcase for the grandeur of the British Empire—was designed to link Great Britain with its colonial outposts in India, Canada, Australia, and Africa. The Hindenburg’s PR agenda was more sinister—to accentuate the technological supremacy of the Third Reich. Both airships employed cutting-edge aviation science, were luxurious and swift—the Concordes of their day.

The R101 introduced such innovations as diesel engine technology, pressure valves on its flotation bags and steel rib structures; the Hindenburg had a gyroscopic compass controlled by auto-pilot and even a lightweight Aluminum piano—a PR coup—offering passengers all the comforts of a hotel lounge bar.

It’s exactly the type of quirky innovation that would have been Tweeted, Instagrammed or Snapchatted had social media been around at the time. Many of the innovations pioneered in these aircraft would become commonplace in airplanes of later decades. But the future of airship passenger air transport was cut short in 1937 due to a shocking tragedy that attracted unprecedented media coverage.

On May 6, 1937, the 245-meter-long Hindenburg was sent plummeting to Earth after leaking Hydrogen gas ignited during docking at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey. Airship disasters were not uncommon at that time—in the US, the USS Shenandoah and USS Akron had crashed in 1925 and 1933 respectively, and the  British R101 met a similar fate  in October 1930. The comparatively low key way in which the American and British accidents were reported, however, made the future of airships salvageable. But by 1937, news reporting included movies—and sound.

The Hindenburg disaster was captured on film and shown in movie theaters across the country. The shocking spectacle of the German airship, transformed within seconds into a plummeting inferno, horrified the audience—and airships were swiftly abandoned. But it wasn’t the event or the airship’s technology but rather the way in which it was presented through the media that stifled what might have been—and still could be—a viable commercial air transport technology.

Today’s two-way flow of dialogue between aerospace pioneers and their followers on social media improves the prospects for pioneering projects to survive when things go wrong.

“The flight test accident generated a lot of attention for our Mojave aerospace community,” a Virgin Galactic spokesperson told Quartz, referencing the aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo crash last October.

“Virgin Galactic received expressions of support through letters, emails, social posts, and even tattoos from space enthusiasts and innovators, customers and fans, people who live on Earth and those stationed in space.”

But social media can also be a conduit for misinformation, he said. “Along with that support came speculation and some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of testing which resulted in some hasty, inaccurate and even scary media reports,” the spokesperson noted.

That’s part of the challenge of pioneering in the social media age. People are so thirsty for information that when the facts aren’t yet available, panic-prone individuals and members of the media are able to fill in the blanks.

In 2013, Boeing faced its own highly-publicized aviation innovation challenge after issues surrounding the 787’s batteries put the planemaker itself in the spotlight.

Strategically pre-empting any speculation, Boeing deployed its full spectrum of social media tools in order to explain the new battery technologies. Instead of hiding behind technical jargon or empty reassurance, Boeing’s corporate communications team chose to tell customers outright that problems with new aircraft often center around an increasing reliance on electrical systems.

It was, in fact, battery woes that would keep Solar Impulse 2 from completing its own flight.

Although the plane landed landed safely in Hawaii on July 3, the trip was halted when engineers realized that the plane’s batteries had become damaged due to overheating. By the time the repair could be made, the window of opportunity had past: the right weather conditions wouldn’t happen again until spring 2016. Solar Impulse’s pilots had to go “off-piste” and navigate the slippery slopes of public scrutiny.

“Making the impossible happen takes more time than the possible. It will be a flight around the world in two years instead of one,” explained Piccard to followers via Solar Impulse’s YouTube channel, standing in front of his plane in a Hawaiian hangar. “Exploration and adventure—it’s not only when you raise the flag of success, it’s also when you have delays, problems, doubts.”

“In the last three years our strategy on social media did evolve a lot. Our goal has been to go towards as much live coverage as we could, as long as it is not mission critical,” says Colegrave. ”It led to publishing those videos where Bertrand and André did explain the situation, directly facing our community.”

When the adventure starts up again, there will be no less drama—while Solar Impulse 2 luxuriates in the tropical hospitality of Kalaeloa Airport, off the Hawaiian coast Joe is lurking under the waves, waiting for spring to arrive.