Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Light-Sport Chronicles: Back To The Future

Not all pioneers go gently unto that good night

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about Randall Fishman. He's the enterprising entrepreneur—he likens himself to a kind of electric-flight general contractor—who quietly blew everybody's mind at Oshkosh in 2007. The retired jeweler displayed—and flew—an electric-powered trike (hang glider with lightweight, three-wheeled frame) with more than an hour's endurance. As such, he became the first to bring an electric flying machine to market, and the EAA appreciatively pinned a couple awards on his chest.

He followed that bombshell the very next year with yet another "voltsplane." This time it was what some folks like to call a "real airplane," which means wings forward, tail behind and engine up front. His ElectraFlyer C was his own modification of a Monnett Moni motorglider kit bird. The C cruised for 1.5 hours at 70 mph on a single charge! Cue the EAA award-medal-pinners again for Randall Fishman, who walked away with the prestigious Dr. August Raspet Award.

You could say his bold steps were the sparks seen 'round the world: Electric flight projects popped up everywhere. In 2009, a stunning prototype project drew the Oshkosh spotlight—the Yuneec International E430, a graceful if still-rough prototype, Chinese-made, 45-foot-spanned, futuristic composite with a Yuneec-built powerplant. The eSpyder, Tom Peghiny's electric-powered FlightStar ultralight, also debuted with a Yuneec motor.

It seemed big money was now coming into electrics. Not to be overshadowed, Randall Fishman had more lightning bolts up his sleeves, including a two-seat motorglider prototype, the ElectraFlyer X, set to debut in 2010. But the year came...and went. Another year passed. No X model.

Meanwhile, Yuneec came out with two more sailplane-based electric-powered designs and a whole line of powerplants for paragliders and trikes. The NASA Green Flight Challenge was announced, and more than a dozen companies and individuals announced they'd field an electric or hybrid aircraft to compete. Many, including myself, believed the electric future was here.

Then tragedy struck Yuneec: In 2011, its designer and creative force, Martin Wezel, was killed in the flight of his E1000 two-seat electric prototype. Next, the eSpyder, after those impressive (and soooo quiet!) flights at Oshkosh and promises of imminent production, seemed to drop off the radar. More than three years after the debut of both models, word is still mum. Where did they go? The only hint from company insiders: Yuneec intends to "get things right" before it comes to market. Take from that what you will.

Other projects made news, including the Lange Antares 20E, the first self-launching electric motorglider to be sold, Pipistrel's Taurus Electro motorglider and Elektra One all popped up. Headline-grabbing, megabuck research projects such as the Solar Impulse caught the public's fancy. And a lot of ballyhoo arose this summer around motorcycle racer Chip Yates' 200 mph-plus stunt flight in a modified VariEze canard kit plane. His stated intention, much publicized, is to fly the Lindbergh route over the Atlantic solely on electric power in 2014. The aircraft has yet to be built, and the challenge of employing several orbiting electric UAVs across the Atlantic has yet to be met.


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