Electric Flight. Is it a dream or destiny for aviation?
This last week, flight by electric power has emerged from beneath the radar and made headlines around the world. Within a day, two separate aviation ventures crossed the English Channel by air without any fossil fuel emissions in their wake. Only the hum of spinning propellers and near silent engines called upon bystanders to crane their necks and look skyward.
The English Channel has hosted many moments in history. From Spanish armadas to solo swimmers, the narrow strip of water between England and France has been both a barrier and a bridge between the island nation and Europe. Louis Bleriot was the first to conquer the Channel by air in July 1909 in his frail monoplane powered by a 3-cylinder engine, complete with smoke and the scent of castor oil. Still, despite a less than flattering landing, Bleriot and his monoplane are now central to aviation history.
(Image: Airbus Group)
More than a century later, a similar flight has drawn attention by virtue of its powerplant. Beyond the controversy the battle to be first, it was the technology that has triumphed - the fact that more than one organisation was capable of achieving the goal stands as testimony to that. Despite the battle of the headlines, it was the live streaming air-to-air images of the Airbus E-Fan in flight on July 10th that captured the world’s attention.
Then the question began to emerge, “Was the flight merely a short distance stunt, or does it have real meaning for the future of flight?” I guess similar words were uttered about Bleriot, or the Wright Brothers for that matter. Ultimately, every revolution has begun with the smallest of steps.
Unlike the pioneer aviators, Airbus now has more than a century of flight to draw upon and the resources to make it a reality. Battery technology is advancing at a substantial rate as evidenced by Tesla’s efforts in the motor vehicle stakes and the community’s desire for ‘green’ solutions to a range of issues provides Airbus with the will to succeed.
Airbus E-Fan. Live across the English Channel....and around the world.
And while the two-seat prototype that was flown across the 22 miles of the Channel was impressive, so much more lies ahead. Commercially, the small E-Fan will evolve into a side-by-side seating version, ideal for training. However, the long term goal is for the genuine transportation of passengers and the development of the E-Thrust concept. It is a ‘hybrid’ aircraft that optimises its propulsive efficiency and carefully manages its flight profile to minimise emissions.
E-Thrust Propulsion System. (Source: Airbus Group)
The E-Thrust features numerous electric fans arranged in clusters along the length of each wing. A battery powers the fans, which is also charged by an onboard “advanced gas power unit.” The gas plant powers the fans directly, though the battery can be charged to power an emergency landing should the gas system fail. Aerodynamic efficiency in design also allows for reduced weight and drag by decreasing the size of the vertical tail and improving weight distribution. It is a brave new world.
Electric flight has been real for some time and the events of the past week have merely drawn it to the attention of a greater audience. Those driving the change definitely foresee a future for electric flight beyond crossings of the English Channel. Is electric flight a dream or destiny? In reality, every destiny begins with a dream. Just ask Louis Bleriot.