Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Power Of Electric Flight

Bridging the continents, bridging the generations

What’s the next big leap in aviation? I think about this stuff all the time. One of the benefits of having worked with so many extraordinary people in my lifetime is that it has opened my mind to the myriad ways to solve a problem. My work with the X PRIZE Foundation has led me to realize that even if I don’t have the skill set or knowledge to create a solution to a problem, I can create a mechanism with which I can help to accelerate a solution by others. At X PRIZE, we get together regularly to look at problems and “stuck areas,” and investigate whether we could design a prize that would stimulate a breakthrough. This is an amazing process of seeking out problems as potential opportunities that has resulted in several game-changing examples (Ansari X PRIZE, Lunar Lander Challenge) of how prize philanthropy can work. Imagine creating a generation of students who are motivated to seek out problems as potential opportunities!

Aviation was developed primarily by two things: warfare and prizes. The London Daily Mail prize was awarded to Louis Blériot for the first crossing of the English Channel in 1909. The Schneider Cup, offered for the fastest seaplanes, had an interesting effect—for a time in the early ’30s the fastest aircraft in the world were seaplanes! The Bendix Trophy, designed to spur development of faster and more reliable aircraft, attracted such notable pilots as Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart and Roscoe Turner, and was won by both Louise Thaden and Jacqueline Cochran, arguably the greatest female pilot of all time.

In 1919, Raymond Orteig put up a $25,000 prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris (in either direction), and a funny thing happened. Seven teams spent $400,000 trying to win the prize. So Orteig leveraged his money by a factor of 16, and all that research and development went into long-distance air travel. My grandfather Charles Lindbergh won the prize using off-the-shelf technology, so it wasn’t really a technical breakthrough as much as it was a psychological one. Before he flew across the Atlantic, people who flew airplanes were known as barnstormers, daredevils and flying fools. After he flew across the Atlantic, people who flew in airplanes were called pilots and passengers. While he was inspired by the cash prize, he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Spirit of St. Louis, that his true motivation was to prove that aviation could be used for commercial purposes.

I believe we’re at a similar time in the history of aviation. Electric aircraft are just beginning to fly, but they aren’t very practical—yet. The energy density of batteries just doesn’t allow a flight profile similar to a gasoline-powered aircraft. However, energy storage technologies are advancing at a rapid pace across multiple industries, and some are forecasting a magnitude of order improvement within the decade. This development would make the performance of electric aircraft practical for many GA applications.


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