Erik Lindbergh with Yuneec founder Tian Yu.
There’s an ineffable pleasure, a kind of shy excitement, that comes with sitting down with an aviation luminary you’ve admired for some time. Even better when you share a common bond—in this case, soloing a new production electric airplane—that few other pilots have yet to enjoy.
And best of all, when the conversation is with as amiable, well-spoken and insightful a person as Erik Lindbergh. In case you’ve just returned from a century-long trip to Alpha Centauri, he’s the grandson of Charles A. Lindbergh, the immortal aviation legend and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, notable literary figure and—you may not know this—the first American woman to earn a glider pilot’s license in 1930.
Tall, lean, bright-eyed and well-spoken, Erik bears the Lindbergh lineage well. A couple months before we sat down in the Innovations Pavilion at AirVenture 2013, he had flown the GreenWing eSpyder electric aircraft at the manufacturer’s Southern California headquarters. Google the video of his flight for a prime example of how a good pilot goes about soloing a type of aircraft (ultralight) he had never flown before.
Naturally, he acquitted himself well: The winged apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree.
A brief backgrounder: Erik Lindbergh is way more than the descendant of a famous aviator. An accomplished commercial pilot and flight instructor, he has earned an aeronautical science degree, sat on the board of the X Prize Foundation (a private space flight development company) and has been a leading proponent of advanced transportation technologies, much as his grandfather was in his day.
Notable for our discussion is the Lindbergh Electric Aircraft Prize (LEAP) he founded. It’s meant to promote practical developments in the fledgling electric aircraft industry.
In 2002, he polished the family laurels with his own flight across the Atlantic in a Lancair Columbia 300, fittingly monikered The New Spirit of St. Louis, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of his grandfather’s epic 1927 flight.
So here we sit, a couple hours after my own maiden jaunt in the colorful single-seat eSpyder—my first flight in an electric. I had taken it around the ultralight pattern at the south end of AirVenture. I was more nervous about making a wrong move in the airspace or blowing my landing in front of the crowd lining the fence more than having any trouble with the airplane, but it all went beautifully. (See my full eSpyder pirep in this issue.)
Before we chat about his own eSpyder hop, Erik offers his reflections on electric flight prototypes at AirVenture.
“We’ve seen so many designs in recent years—all kinds of interesting concepts and prototype aircraft,” he said. “Sometimes they display here (AirVenture) for a few years, then they’re gone. Other times it’s just one year, and you wonder what happened.
“When I saw my first electric aircraft, just a static display, it still piqued my imagination,” he explained. “The very next year, we had an electric aircraft forum here on how we’d get the industry started.”
Lindbergh had already been wondering for some time how to accelerate the development of electric flight. “It holds so much promise for the future of aviation,” he said. “I’d been thinking about the threats we face in aviation, like losing airport infrastructure because of noise, the high cost of fuel, pollution. These are all significant threats to the industry.
“So, I’d wondered, how do we regrow the industry?” Lindbergh asked. “Electric aircraft hold that potential. They’re quiet, simple, safe and use renewable energies. There are so many positives. It’s a Holy Grail, if you will. If we can bring the costs down by, say, half, then how many more pilots will get involved in aviation? How much better of a rapport will we have with the non-flying public? And how much more vital will we become as an industry?”
Lindbergh notes the 10 LEAP prizes he has awarded so far for excellence in electric flight, including one to the e-Genius for Quietest Aircraft at the NASA CAFÉ Green Flight Challenge.
“Personally,” he offers, evoking his grandmother’s own flight chops, “I love to fly gliders. So, if we can have propeller-driven aircraft that are quieter, that’s good for the industry.”
Lindbergh has also been instrumental in forming the Electric Aircraft Development Alliance (EADA), “to help work out the rules, standards, safety and facilitation between manufacturers and the FAA and facilitate the industry’s development,” he explained.
“I got involved with electric flight” Lindbergh adds, “mostly for selfish reasons. I wanted to fly one, and two months ago, I got that opportunity at Cable Airport with the eSpyder.”
Lindbergh laughs, remembering the day. “It was very cool…and a little bit freaky for me!” he recalls. “It was my first time actually flying an ultralight. And I’d never flown any aircraft without dual instruction first. It was a bit nerve-racking from that standpoint.”
I told him how I appreciated, after watching the video of his flight online, how intently and smoothly he had executed the solo.
“Once you go up, man, you’re committed!” Lindbergh exclaimed. “And you’re coming down, so you definitely want to be lined up, and you want to bring her down carefully, so you survive to fly again.”
To be sure, controlling the eSpyder is a radical departure from flying a Cessna Columbia.
“It’s such a different feel on the controls,” he acknowledged. “When I went up, I thought, ‘I’m not going as fast…but I’m up in the air. If I come down hard it’s still going to hurt!'”
I asked him who briefed him before the flight, and he laughs again.
“Everybody!” Lindbergh said. “I also sought out people who I knew had flown it, including a friend of mine who owned one of the first prototypes from a couple years ago.
“The cool thing was that I just kept it up in the air, played with the rudder and ailerons, did some Dutch rolls around the patch a couple of times until it felt really comfortable, then I brought it down,” he explained.
Linbergh cites one challenge—over-briefing—that caused mild concern. Everyone had told him to be sure to “carry the speed, always carry a little bit of speed,” he said. “So I came in to land with about a 4 kW (kilowatt) power setting—that’s a bit odd to get used to, by the way, making the power setting in kilowatts, but it actually translates easily: It’s just a power setting,” he explains. “You’re still flying an airplane: It’s just a different denominator, if you will, a different terminology.
“Anyway, carrying about 4 kW, the eSpyder didn’t want to land!” Lindbergh recounts. “I kept squirreling down the runway in ground effect. Finally, I pulled the power all the way back, because I had good control of the aircraft. And it landed, pretty as you please, very smooth. And then I was ready for a break. I wanted to think about the flight!”
I ask him what was the most surprising thing about it. He thinks for a moment before answering.
“Well, the full-span ailerons really give you a lot of yaw,” Lindbergh said. “So really getting into sync with the rudder and ailerons was kind of my main piece, other than throttle control. The thing flies really slow and really well on a very, very small amount of power.
Then he smiles and his eyes light up.
“What I would love to do on my next flight, as I saw the test pilots doing, is to really play with reduced power settings and see how long you can fly,” Lindbergh said. “The thing about glider flying I love is seeking lift—the hunt for lift, and keeping an eye on the airport, because you don’t have thrust and you know you want to get back there at the end of your flight.
“I think that’s the next thing I want to try in this aircraft,” Lindbergh said. “I’m a Prius owner, so I want to explore the gaming-like challenge of ‘hypermiling’—seeing how long I can extend the flight on a single battery charge.”
Spoken like a true Lindbergh.
Next month, I’ll wrap up our talk with his insights on the once-and-future electric aircraft phenomenon.