Inflight food gets an upgrade! Solar Impulse and The Spirit of St Louis

Jun 22, 2016
Spirit of St Louis stamp

In 1927 a young, fearless aviator took off in a small plane from Roosevelt Field in New York, to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean. His name was Captain Charles Lindbergh, and his plane was called The Spirit of St Louis.

Lindbergh reached Paris on May 21, two-and-a-half months of hard work lay behind his 33-hour journey, most of which went into the design and construction of his plane.

Apart from sheer bravery, Lindbergh took an ‘emergency kit’ on board with him, little more than a hunting knife and a ball of string. Food for the flight was almost an afterthought: five sandwiches, five cans of emergency rations in the event of an emergency jump or crash landing, and a few litres of water.


Charles’s in-flight menu? Just those sandwiches and one litre of water, and he waited 32 hours before nibbling distastefully at some food, having already reached mainland France.

“I hold the stick with my knees, untwist the neck of the paper bag, and pull out a sandwich – my first food since take-off. But how flat the sandwich tastes! Bread and meat never touched my tongue like this before. It’s an effort even to swallow.

“I’m hungry, because I go on eating, but I have to wash each mouthful down with water. One sandwich is enough. I brush the crumbs off my lap. I start to throw the wrapping through the window – no, these fields are so clean and fresh it’s a shame to scatter them with paper.”

Lindbergh’s legendary flight…with no fuel

In the near century since Lindbergh’s epic flight, much has changed, not only in terms of aeroplane technology, but also our knowledge of how to ensure pilots stay healthy during long, non-stop flights.

Recently, Solar Impulse – the first solar-powered plane to attempt a round-the-world trip, re-enacted Lindbergh’s legendary flight across the Atlantic. But it didn’t re-enact his diet, or his plane’s…

The crossing took around four days of uninterrupted flying, but while Lindbergh’s aircraft needed 1,700 litres of fuel to make the journey, Solar Impulse itself flew on empty!

Solar Impulse pilot eating

The only ‘fuel’ on board was specially designed food and drinks from Nestlé Research, tailored to the precise needs of pilot Bertrand Piccard. Food and drinks that can withstand extreme variations in temperature and climatic conditions in an unpressurised cabin at almost 30,000 feet.

Piccard and his fellow pilot André Borschberg are pushing their bodies to the limit during non-stop flights lasting several days as they circumnavigate the globe. The food they eat is vital to sustain them physically at different altitudes, and provide them with a ‘reward’ during long hours spent at 30,000 feet.

A more sophisticated inflight menu

Their inflight menu is a lot more sophisticated than Lindbergh’s. Hot dishes include mushroom risotto, potato gratin and steamed chicken with rice and summer vegetables, while Nestlé brands include Nescafé, Fitness breakfast cereals, Nido milk powder, Resource protein shakes and Cailler chocolate.

Solar Impulse food in flight

Nestlé Research spent five years developing this diet for the Solar Impulse pilots, and the company has gained valued insights into people’s nutritional needs at high altitudes.

For example, the human body requires more energy to function normally in the cold at high altitudes, although a person’s appetite will diminish. The nutritional composition of each meal and snack is tailored accordingly. At high altitudes meals need to be higher in carbohydrates, whereas below 3,500m the pilots need higher levels of protein.

Special packaging means fresh, nutritious food

Processing and packaging of the food for Solar Impulse ensures that it stays fresh for up to three months without artificial preservatives. Packaging is also designed to allow them to easily prepare and consume their food inside a confined cockpit, and at times when they are wearing their oxygen masks.

The construction and engineering of Spirit of St Louis aircraft took 4700 man hours.

Developing tailor-made menus for the Solar Impulse pilots took over 6000 hours of Nestlé Research.

Preparing food can reduce its nutritional value, so the Nestlé Research team developed a new preparation method. This involves filling specially designed food pouches with freshly chopped ingredients (vegetables, meat, etc.), then cooking and sterilising the pouches after sealing, to preserve the full nutritional benefits of these fresh ingredients.

“This science-first approach is a great example of real life applications to develop future products. Working with the pilots, who have restricted movements and lower appetites in flight but still demand high energy, has given us insights for developing personalised food”, said Nestlé Chief Technology Officer, Stefan Catsicas.

Food supplies on board of The Spirit of St Louis, for the entire flight:
1 litre of water for in-flight consumption, 3,7 litres of water for an emergency, 5 sandwiches, 5 cans of army-issue emergency rations

Food supplies on board Solar Impulse, per day, per pilot:
2,5 litres of water, 1 litre of sports drink, 1 Gerber yogurt, 1 portion of Fitness breakfast cereals, 1 Nido milk powder, 1 Nescafé decaf hot coffee, 1 Resource HP/HC protein drink, whole grain bread, Le Parfait spread, 1 soup: carrot; potato and leek; or chicken curry, Tabbouleh, 1 hot meal: chicken rice with summer vegetables; mushroom risotto; or potato gratin, 1 Cailler chocolate, dried fruits and nuts, 1 Resource dessert