Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ElectriFly 2010

Electric flight is no longer an “if” but a “when”

In 2007, a quintessential “garage inventor” named Randall Fishman showed up out of nowhere at Oshkosh AirVenture with an electric-powered ultralight—and quietly turned the aviation world on its ear. Fishman’s modest flights rekindled the century-old aviation zeitgeist of electric power that will transform flight as surely as the gas engine transformed ground travel.

Flash-forward to AirVenture 2010. Quiet as a whisper, a graceful sailplane slices through the air before an audience of thousands, in a consummate expression of the aerodynamicist’s art and the pilot’s skill. On a long, flat final, its 65.6-foot “super elliptical” wing curves upward like a huge smile. Then something rises behind the sleek pod’s clear canopy—a double-poled pylon sporting a large propeller. The prop spins up, but there’s no engine noise. As the motorglider levels off to fly down the runway, a wave of comprehension follows in its silent wake: This glider is electric-powered.

Antares 20E is an exotic creature like few of us will ever fly. Of course, the big story is the electric propulsion itself. A 42 kW (kilowatt) external rotor motor gives an 866 fpm climb. A full charge brings climb to nearly 10,000 feet—an impressive achievement. Given its power-off sink rate of just 96 fpm, a typical flight on a soarable day might entail a modest, energy-conserving climb to 3,000 feet, engine switch-off and soaring flight. At day’s end, the remaining battery power would easily carry the craft to a nearby airfield.

A specialized flight profile to be sure, but one that optimizes the current potential of electric motor efficiencies (currently 85% and higher) and ever-increasing battery storage potential. Yet, as a company spokesman for Sikorsky’s electric helicopter project elucidated recently, reducing battery weight while increasing storage capacity remains the big bottleneck.

Nonetheless, the Antares 20E is the first certified production electric aircraft in the world! As such, its designer Axel Lange just won the LEAP individual achievement award. The Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize is designed to accelerate the development of the electric aircraft industry. Founder Erik Lindbergh believes prizes inspire innovators to invest more time and money and bring more visibility to their efforts. Few goals are more tantalizing than being “first” or “best.”


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