Sound­ings epower across the Chan­nel

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - ZACH ROSEN­BERG

ON JULY 10, an air­plane pow­ered by elec­tric­ity, the Air­bus E-fan, took off from Lydd, Eng­land, ac­com­pa­nied by a cam­era-equipped chase plane. It landed less than an hour later in Calais, France, to kick off a press con­fer­ence where the com­pany bet­ter known for its gas-burn­ing air­lin­ers was pre­pared to claim that it had made the first bat­tery-pow­ered flight across the English Chan­nel.

But just 24 hours ear­lier, a com­peti­tor was pre­par­ing to beat Air­bus. French stunt pi­lot Hugues Du­val packed him­self into a Cri-cri, one of the small­est air­planes ever built, and cranked up its two bat­tery-driven pro­pel­lers. Towed aloft and re­leased like a glider, the Cri-cri crossed the chan­nel in 17 min­utes, land­ing in Calais with lit­tle fanfare.

(Pip­istrel’s Al­pha Elec­tro dropped out of the chan­nel race when its en­gine man­u­fac­turer, Siemens, in­sisted the en­gine wasn’t fit for the over­wa­ter flight and de­manded Pip­istrel re­move it. Ru­mors of in­ter­fer­ence abounded: Siemens also made E-fan’s en­gine.)

The com­pe­ti­tion was a reen­act­ment of the fa­mous 1909 race in which Louis Blériot made the first cross­ing of the English Chan­nel by air, de­mon­strat­ing avi­a­tion’s util­ity when it was a cu­ri­ous up­start. To­day’s con­tes­tants hope that by fol­low­ing in Blériot’s wake they can show the aerospace com­mu­nity that elec­tric air­planes are prac­ti­cal and safe.

“Over wa­ter you need to take spe­cial safety mea­sures to en­sure your plane can fly… and can com­ply with any un­fore­seen sit­u­a­tion,” says Detlef Müeller-wies­ner, Air­bus’ head of e-air­craft. Gaspow­ered air­craft have to be cer­ti­fied for over­wa­ter flight, but Air­bus had to cre­ate its own sys­tem for as­sur­ing the E-fan was qual­i­fied to make the trip, he says, be­cause there are no stan­dards yet for elec­tric air­craft.

These flights were more a demon­stra­tion of energy stor­age than of elec­tric power: The first elec­tric air­plane to cross the chan­nel was ac­tu­ally Aeroviron­ment’s So­lar Chal­lenger, which made the flight in 1981 pow­ered only by so­lar cells. Hav­ing no bat­ter­ies, it would have fallen from the sky if the sun stopped shin­ing. The E-fan can stay aloft for up to an hour on bat­ter­ies, though it’s slow. The Cri-cri is speed­ier, but can power it­self for only a half-hour.

The Cri-cri may have won the crown, but it’s es­sen­tially an air­show toy, and there are no plans to build it big­ger. But the E-fan was built with ex­pan­sion in mind: Air­bus plans to make two larger ver­sions with twice the en­durance for flight schools.

De­spite the suc­cess­ful demos, bat­ter­ies aren’t quite ready for prime time. So­lar Im­pulse 2, the elec­tric air­plane slowly cir­cling the globe, is grounded un­til spring 2016—dur­ing its 118-hour flight from Ja­pan to Hawaii in July, its bat­ter­ies over­heated and were ir­re­versibly dam­aged.

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