Last month, I shared Erik Lindbergh’s highlights of his first solo flight in an ultralight aircraft—that just happened to be an electric-powered airplane: the GreenWing International eSpyder e280. Erik is the aviation and space tourism advocate, accomplished pilot and grandson of visionary legend Charles Lindbergh and writer/pilot Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
He not only flew the New Spirit of St. Louis (a Lancair Columbia 300) across the Atlantic in 2002 to commemorate his grandfather’s immortal flight, but remains a highly visible and influential figure in his efforts to raise awareness of aviation’s expansive future. As we moved beyond his reminiscence of the eSpyder flight, I asked whether he thought there would be a strong market for the $39,900 Experimental Amateur-Built eSpyder kit.
“I don’t really have an opinion,” he replied. “I do believe it’s the beginning, the crest of a forming wave. Based on what many people have told me, electric propulsion is the future of aviation, probably all forms of aviation, eventually.”
He acknowledged it’ll take “a while” to get there, but noted the significance of the eSpyder being the first purely electric aircraft to be certified (to Germany’s DULV standard).
“That makes it like the JN-4 Jenny my grandfather barnstormed in. It represents a similar stage of progress: We’re entering a kind of barnstorming era for electric flight,” Lindberg said.
He talked about the major innovators he has known in the new industry: Yuneec’s Tian Yu, Pipistrel’s Ivo Boscarol, John Monnett of Sonex and André Borschberg, cofounder of the highly visible Solar Impulse project, which aims to fly around the world entirely on solar power.
“These guys are every bit as colorful, interesting, daring and willing to risk their money and livelihoods as the Bill Boeings and Clyde Cessnas of the Golden Age,” Lindbergh continued.
He grins with unabashed enthusiasm. “It’s pretty exciting! Although I don’t think the flying public quite gets just yet that we may have, in the near future—I mean 10 to 15 years—small vertical takeoff and landing electric aircraft that are quiet, safe and simple to fly.”
Then he asked, “And how will that change the way we move around the planet? Even if it takes longer, it is a kind of George Jetson reality that I think we are going to see in the future.”
He waxed eloquent with the vision that we might at last be truly free from the infrastructure of roads. “It’s a concept that thrills me and scares me a little bit, too,” he continued. “After all, who can predict the side effects that might produce?
“Maybe I’m just a crazy evangelist. But, I see it happening, so I’ve taken it on,” he said.
“Taking it on” includes his Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP) awards and other high-profile efforts, such as serving on the board of the XPRIZE Foundation. He’s excited about the future of both flight and space travel.
“Something people ask me is, ‘What would your grandfather think about this?'” Lindbergh acknowledges. “You know, I have no idea, except that he was always interested in the future of aviation: where it went, how advancing technology would affect our quality of life, how we should balance technology with the environment, or really, the quality of life itself.
“I do think he would be fascinated by electric aircraft and would probably be an evangelist himself,” he said.
When I ask him if he ever fantasizes flying with his grandfather in something like the eSpyder, he smiled broadly. “Oh yeah—it would be great!” he said. “He always had his head in the clouds, thinking about the future of aircraft and spaceflight. I never did get a chance to fly with him, but I loved him as a kid. I thought he was great,” Lindbergh said.
He admits to some frustration at the intervening years since Yuneec and others rolled out electric prototypes to now, finally, having a viable electric aircraft that the average pilot can own and fly. “I didn’t think it would take this long,” he said. “With the Lindbergh Prizes, we wanted to bring public recognition to breakthroughs in the field.”
The LEAP program “stood down” for a year to give new players, as he calls them, time to further develop their projects. “Many are doing it fairly quietly, so we’re holding off for a while. That’s the beauty of recognition prizes: We can be very flexible.” Lindbergh explains.
He dreams about an incentive like the Orteig Prize his grandfather won in the original Spirit—perhaps a joint effort with the XPRIZE Foundation.
“It would be great to find someone to put up $10 million to be awarded to the first practical aircraft, say a four-seater, to fly nonstop between New York and Paris,” Lindbergh says. “That would really shift the world’s perspective about (what) electric aviation can do. It would also spur the competition and bring a lot of attention to the industry, which it needs,” he said.
He sagely noted that before grandpa Lindbergh hopped the pond, people who flew airplanes were called “barnstormers, daredevils and flying fools.” After that civilization-altering flight, they became known as “pilots and passengers.”
“So yes, I see the need for a change in perspective, and a big prize is one way to bring it about,” Lindbergh said. “But the electric industry is coming, make no mistake,” he said.
He glances across the hangar at the eSpyder. “The biggies like Sikorsky and GE and Airbus and Boeing are all noodling around with it,” Lindergh pointed out. “They see it coming. They are gradually electrifying more and more systems. The Dreamliner’s battery fire problems notwithstanding—there are going to be hiccups along the way—I think electric flight will be very safe,” he said.
Lindbergh brings up the imminent benefit for the flight training market promised by Yuneec’s original bombshell debut: the e430, two-seat S-LSA that GreenWing hopes to have certified by next summer. “Once we get a two-seater with close to two-hour endurance, it will dramatically shift the training market, at least in the U.S.; we have the biggest training market in the world here,” he said.
Erik calls it “a bit of the Holy Grail,” to see which manufacturer will be the first Cessna or Piper of electric flight training.
I asked him if he thinks the e430 could become the electric Cessna 150.
“I think it’s a great airplane, so yes, it could be,” Lindbergh says. “Another company to watch is Pipistrel. They demonstrated a lot of success with the NASA Green Flight Challenge,” he said.
That Slovenian company won world acclaim and a tidy $1.35 million check—the biggest aviation prize ever—by flying 200 miles on batteries alone, with four passengers, at a 100 mph-plus average speed. The fuel “burn” was the energy equivalent of one gallon of gas per passenger—a formidable accomplishment that branded Pipistrel as a major star in the burgeoning electric sweepstakes.
I asked if he has met two other movers and shakers I personally admire: Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors) and Peter Diamandis, (founder of XPRIZE Foundation, co-founder with another big thinker, Ray Kurzweil, of Singularity University).
“I served with Elon on the board of XPRIZE,” Lindbergh said. “These guys are some of the leading visionaries of our time. Elon’s got a vision, the money and the savvy to back it up.” With a glint in his eye, he added, “I think these guys have surprises up their sleeves for electric flight, as well.”
To appreciate the creative side of Erik Lindbergh’s love of flight, check out www.lindberghgallery.com. His very cool retro sci-fi rocket ships—think Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon style—and other fanciful wood creations are top-notch.