I hear a car door slam, then the bark of a dog. Hadn't quite expected that. Extending my arm into the airstream to take a smartphone self-portrait, the clack! of the faux camera shutter is surprisingly audible.
There's nothing so remarkable about any of these summer morning sounds except they're taking place as I fly an open-cockpit, wind-washed, electric-powered production airplane, cruising at 300 feet and 40 mph above the green fields of Oshkosh, Wis.
My bird of silent wing is the new, long-anticipated GreenWing eSpyder LS280. The beautifully appointed ultralight-style airplane, now in production as an easy-build kit, represents a significant step forward in bringing electric flight to the masses.
It has been a long road since the project's first unveiling as a flying prototype at Oshkosh 2009.
Yuneec, the Chinese electric flight company no one in the United States had ever heard of, blossomed like a lotus flower that year. Its beautiful E430 two-seat S-LSA prototype turned every head at AirVenture with its graceful, motorglider-like sculpted wing and sleek composite airframe.
Backing it up was Yuneec's open-air display of ruby-anodized electric motor packages, intended to be strapped on like a backpack to power paragliders and other super-light aircraft.
Sharing the outdoor spotlight with the E430 was the eSpyder prototype.
Tom Peghiny, chief wrangler of Flight Design USA's market-topping CT line of S-LSA, had quietly begun developing an electric-powered version of the gas engine-powered FlightStar ultralight he had produced and sold for years.
Along the way, he partnered with Yuneec, formed by hugely successful electric RC model entrepreneur Tian Yu. Yuneec, in time, bought the project from Peghiny for further development and production.
Witness To History
Camera in hand at AirVenture 2009, I remember breathlessly hot-footing along behind Peghiny, camera in hand one breezy Oshkosh afternoon as he pushed his modified electric FlightStar out onto the ultralight-area grass.
He strapped in, called "Clear!" and "fired up" the engine. The only visceral clues that anything was happening were the faint whine from the brushless motor and a spinning prop.
Peghiny throttled up, accelerated across the grass with nary more than a whisper from the thin composite prop, lifted into the golden afternoon and floated into electric aviation history. I fired off several photos, wishing with all my heart that he and I could change places!
It was both exhilarating and eerie to watch the eSpyder pass overhead at 300 feet, under power, yet not hear any noise at all. We can imagine spectators who saw Whitehead, the Wrights, Glen Curtiss, Santos-Dumont, Bleriot, et al, from 1901 to 1914, feeling similar awe at their first view of an aeroplane.
I felt in my bones that this was the dawn of a new era, and true enough. My timing was just a bit off...four years off as it turned out.
Climbing The Learning Curve
Lesson: You can push technology hard, but you can't shortcut the learning curve.
Battery and electric motor development, personal tragedy and design setbacks at Yuneec, and the need for a deeper maturing of energy storage physics, motor design and electronic speed controller refinement proved to be the R&D sinkhole of electric aircraft production during those last four years.
Recently, anxious for encouraging news, I asked Peghiny what the heck was happening with Yuneec's electric R&D.
"They won't produce it," he answered cryptically, "until everything's the way they want it. They want to get it absolutely right."
My flight in the AirVenture skies assures me they've gotten it right.
Here's what's missing with the eSpyder:
1. Loud and obnoxious two-stroke engine noise
2. A vibrating airframe
3. Smelly exhaust
4. Oil mixing and refueling chores
5. Regular engine maintenance
The FlightStar ultralight was developed by my late, great friend Marty Alameda in 1981, at his Flight Designs hang-glider company. Alameda saw the ultralight boom coming, and meant to prosper from it. Pioneer International bought the rights to the FlightStar from him, although he continued its development, much as Peghiny would two decades later.
My part in the 33-year saga of the FlightStar came when I flew it for a flight report for Ultralight Aircraft magazine in 1981.
Now I've closed the circle of synchronicities here in the fully mature, ready-for-prime time, German DULV-certified eSpyder. It's my first electric flight, and it brings back the thrills and chills of my first hang-glider launch in 1973 and ultralight flight in 1980. It's been gratifying to be part of these new waves in aviation...but electric flight will change our world. And the eSpyder is the movement's 1905 Wright Flyer III that was—the first truly practical airplane.
Green Wings For All
Eric Bartsch "got it" about electric flight a few years ago. He's the voluble, super-enthusiastic go-getter in charge of GreenWing International, the eSpyder production company spun off from Yuneec.
Bartsch, a pilot himself, was also an executive at Horizon Hobby—Yuneec's largest customer—and worked closely with Tian Yu for years.
"I would kid Tian that we wrote the checks that paid for Yuneec's electric aviation projects!" he said at Oshkosh, where GreenWing debuted the production eSpyder.
"Tian is the visionary who made it all happen. I'm a management consultant to help him make the dream a reality. I'd watched from the sidelines and talked at length with him about electric flight from the very start. I saw the wings and fuselage mated on the very first E430.
"Six months ago, Tian realized R&D was coming to an end," he remembers. "It needed to become an actual aviation business. He asked me to help make that transition, and GreenWing International was born."
The company produces the airframes, provides service and maintenance, and "gives customers a great experience," Bartsch concludes.
The initial production run for the eSpyder is 50 aircraft: 25 kits for the U.S. market, 25 ready-to-fly units for overseas. Why the difference? There's no legal provision for electric propulsion in the U.S. FAA is still working on revising the Light-Sport Rule, which is rumored to be imminent.
Looking beyond the eSpyder, next year could be another big year for GreenWing, says Bartsch.
"The new two-seat E430 is nothing like the rough fiberglass airplane you saw in 2009. We're now in flight test with conforming prototypes numbers 8 and 9, which are mostly carbon-fiber composite. These new airplanes are completely different in every way.
"We expect to introduce the E430 here next year as a production airplane," Bartsch continues. We should have German DULV certification by the end of this year. We also hope to see the FAA clear the way for electric S-LSA certification shortly."
How It Feels To Fly By Watts
Now to wrap this report up with highlights from my own eSpyder flight.
Ground handling is a snap, thanks to the steerable nosewheel and effective main wheel hydraulic brakes, which actuate with a stick-mounted hand brake.
The little motor (don't call it an engine) torques up as soon as you ease in the "throttle" power level. The power surge is strong and immediate.
Liftoff comes in a hurry: My ground roll was perhaps 250 feet at the full power setting of 24 kW. Climbout is surprisingly robust, nearly 400 fpm, considering the diminutive 32 hp-equivalent electric motor.
In the air, the bird handles much like a heavyish ultralight. Cruising at 40 mph, you want to give it plenty of rudder to aid initial bank: The full-span ailerons pull in a fair amount of adverse yaw.
Chris LeFave, GreenWing's Chief Pilot, urged me to try flying with rudder alone: the yaw-roll coupling from the wing's mild dihedral makes that a breeze.
The aileron response and feel at low speeds is, especially without rudder, a bit heavy but ultralight-typical. Flying closer to max speed of 68 mph livens the handling.
Flying with the wind nipping at your ears, being able to hear the sounds of the two-dimensional world below, is an indescribably giddy pleasure. Loping along at a 10-12 kW power setting, or 50% of full power—a mere 14 hp equivalent!—is truly a kick.
I toyed with extending my flight endurance. It's like hypermiling in my Prius. I kept easing back on the power lever, testing how little energy I could draw from the battery "tanks" and still maintain level flight.
Pitch control is smooth and easy. Landing works best carrying a slight touch of power. Rounding out in ground effect a foot or so above ground, then backing off the power (and yes, the prop will stop!) settles you on, pretty as you please. My first landing was a greaser. The eSpyder is a fun, easy bird to fly.
Although I hadn't flown an ultralight solo in a long time, the years melted away in a flash. It was 1981 again, the sky above Oshkosh was filled with colorful ultralights, like butterflies.
The only thing missing was the noise, smell and vibration. But my big smile was there the whole time.
Welcome to the future.
The Four Stages Of Electric Flight
GreenWing International's Eric Bartsch lays out eSpyder's place in the new Electric Age
|"I see four stages for electric flight,"Bartsch explains. The first is research and development. We've done that for years now and I'm happy to say we've moved to the second stage: recreation.
"This is no longer a 'future thing,'" he says, "it's a 'now' thing. The technology is ready in a plane that's fun to fly and has an hour duration."
Bartsch identifies flight training as the third phase.
"For that to be successful, you have to take two people up for 90 minutes to two hours.
We will achieve that next year when the E430 enters production. We're excited about what
The fourth phase? "It's transportation. We're talking range, payload and speed. No one is there yet in electric aviation and current battery technology is the holdup."
That Last Frontier is being chipped away at daily around the globe. Technology innovators from garage geniuses to giants such as Boeing and Lockheed (ground-based laser refueling, anyone?) are pushing the R&D envelope with almost-daily, exciting breakthroughs. We'll surely have gasoline-equivalent weight and energy storage for electric flight. It's only a matter of time.
Leading technologists anticipate electric- or hybrid-powered airliners and commercial aircraft as soon as 2035. In the interim, expect grassroots aviation efforts to mushroom globally. It's an exciting time once again to be involved in aviation.