Last summer a family member of mine decided to take a leap into the future and purchased a Tesla Model S. When we went home for the holidays my husband and I were able to take a ride in the brilliant unity of technology and transportation that is an electric car. Outfitted with dozens of luxury features, and with an engine so quiet you’ll wonder why we’ve dealt with noisy mechanical engines for this long, riding in a Tesla will change your life. The power behind the electric car is amazing. There is no delay between pushing the pedal (Gas pedal? Go pedal?) and when you are moving along smooth as silk. After riding in the Tesla and seeing several charging stations "in the wild" I truly believe that electric cars are going to be the preferred way to travel in the future.
Bringing everything in my life back to aviation, as I am so inclined to do, I began to wonder about the options that are available for electric airplanes. Surely the innovations that Elon Musk has brought to cars was brought to airplanes long ago. Fuel is one of the largest costs when operating an aircraft, whether small or large, so surely someone has made an electronic solution. The engine noise inside an aircraft is so loud annoying that many people opt to fly gliders for some peace and quiet. To be rid of insane fuel costs and mind-numbing loudness would make aviation a much more comfortable place to be. I began digging around online and found some interesting developments that are striving to bring battery-powered flight to the public every day.
Electric powered flying machines have been around almost as long as aviation itself. The first instance was in 1883 when Frenchman Gaston Tissandier flew an electrically-powered airship using a Siemens motor. Improved electric airships were then created, however, most of them had to be tethered to a power source on the ground. Innovations to full-sized aircraft didn’t come until the invention of the Nickel-Cadmium battery, which could provide much more power with less weight.
The first manned electric aircraft to fly under its own power was the Militky MB-E1 in 1973. This small two passenger aircraft had a flight time of just 14 minutes, but it was a good start. Ever since this first flight dozens of companies have been working on creating the perfect electric airplane.
It’s impossible to write an article about electric aircraft without mentioning all of the work NASA has done with solar-powered unmanned aircraft. They have set quite a few records with their Pathfinder, Centurion, and Helios. These long skinny planes look like something out of a sci-fi movie, and they made groundbreaking discoveries in the future of solar-powered flight. In 2001 the Helios set an altitude record of 96,863 feet! However, these are not manned and I wanted to focus more on the human transportation involved with electric aircraft.
The Sun Flyer
Of all the electric aircraft prototypes I saw in my research, none looked as complete and interesting as the Sun Flyer. The 2 seater aircraft is sleek, costs approximately $16 per flight hour (compared to $89 for a Cessna 172) and can fly 3 hours on a single charge. The founding management team includes Charlie Johnson, the former president of Cessna, so they must know what they are doing. They are not currently in production, but as is evident on their website, they have deposits for 105 aircraft. I can definitely see this company and concept becoming huge in the upcoming years. Although the short flight endurance may seem like a hindrance, this aircraft is perfect as a training aircraft. Training flights are often less than 2 hours, and having a more affordable option benefits both the students and the school.
Pipistrel Alpha Electro
The Sun Flyer is not alone in the race to become the best electric flight training aircraft. Pipistrel is a Slovenian light aircraft manufacturer that holds many awards for their eco-friendly aircraft designs. Their goals are to reduce emissions created by aircraft, make flying more affordable, and decrease the noise around airports. All of these things are achievable through electric aircraft, so their main focus right now has been developing the "Alpha Electro" to be a 2-seater ultralight flight training aircraft.
It will be interesting to see where electronic aircraft development takes us in the future. Teslas are quickly becoming a serious competitor in the car market, and it would be nice to see this same intense competition and innovation with electric aircraft. At the end of the day, everyone can benefit from more affordable and enjoyable flying options!