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Electric Creep

As electrics worm their way into our world, we’ll begin to see a change in how these aircraft are received by the old-school flyers almost all of us still are.

The Volocopter. Photo by Art Eichmann.

At Oshkosh 2021, we began to see the slow creep of electric propulsion into the kind of flying represented at AirVenture every year, which is, except for the military and commercial hardware, an analog to the kind of flying that most of us do.

At the world’s biggest fly-in, there were two electric-powered multicopters that participated in the daily air show. They were the Volocopter and the Opener BlackFly. As one might expect in a segment that is still emerging, they were very different-looking and different-flying aircraft. The general consensus was that the Volocopter was the more impressive performer, but then again, addressing a different market than the BlackFly is. In addition to the airplanes we saw and barely heard flying before us, there were also numerous electric aircraft on display, in addition to a number of hybrid-power craft.

Whether or not any of these aircraft become players in a future segment of light personal flying is hard to say. When you look at the genesis of other segments of aviation, the pioneering aircraft are not the aircraft that ultimately made their mark on the world. They are forays into the new world, concepts being tested, not only aerodynamically and mechanically but also in terms of market reception.

The ultralight aircraft that survived to service what wound up being a good niche market, were solid, predictable-flying, and, most of all, relatively safe aircraft. I would suggest that there are lessons to be learned from that segment’s birth.

And I think we’re going to see electrics move away from what has been described as “urban air mobility” to something more closely resembling what Joby Aviation is calling “advanced air mobility.” The difference is, the latter terminology opens the segment to the possibility that they just don’t know how these aircraft are going to be used, and possibly, the notion that the widespread use of these craft for travel within urban centers is a fantasy, which I strongly believe.

That’s good news for those of us in GA. One of the most intriguing happenings at Oshkosh was the display by a Japanese company, tetra Aviation, of an electric multicopter kit aircraft.

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Making these aircraft into kitplanes is the most likely first step toward broad acceptance. And, yes, the safety record of an emerging experimental amateur-built segment is likely to be checkered. And if that happens, as it likely would, that could cast a shadow on the segment, causing people to presume that because the safety record of the experimental versions of these aircraft is poor, which I hope would not be the case, but let’s be serious, it very likely would be, that it’s the fault not of the process or the regulatory umbrella under which they are built but of the aircraft concept itself.

If the aircraft display the kind of economic benefits that we all need to presume they will, I don’t think that will matter much. The bottom line is, as Bill Clinton said, it’s all about the economy, dummy. When it comes to aviation, it, 2, is all about the dollars and cents. If these aircraft deliver a pleasing flight experience, even if their utility isn’t strong at first, the low direct cost of operation will surely win a place in people’s hearts and pocketbooks for these kinds of aircraft.

There are, of course, other benefits in addition to a lower cost of operation. The motors on these aircraft will be cheaper to maintain by a big margin. Engine maintenance accounts for a large percentage of maintenance costs for small aircraft; I don’t have to tell you. There are also benefits, and we might not like this part very much, to the fact that there will be a good deal of automation built into the fly-by-wire systems that these aircraft will certainly be employing. Does that take some of the fun out of the flying? Yes. But at the same time, if there is sufficient demand for it, more conventional, electric-powered aircraft will emerge to fill that niche, which I strongly suspect will be the case.

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So as these electric aircraft creep their ways into our flying lives, there are likely to be two big things that happen. First, people will get used to them. That is not only a good thing—it’s critical that it happened before electric aircraft can enjoy any market success. Theother thing is that the introduction of these early models will serve as a test laboratory of market acceptance and of the engineering and aerodynamics behind these aircraft.

The Opener Aviation BlackFly. Photo by Art Eichmann.

In the end we’re almost certain to have multiple segments within a segment. And that’s good news. We’ll get to choose the kind of aircraft that we want to be flying.

And there will surely be kinds of flying that will be out of touch for electric aircraft, and one of the big ones is cross-country travel, which won’t be possible in any meaningful way until batteries and charging improve in revolutionary ways, which may or may not happen. But in the meantime, electric aircraft will continue to improve in ways that will take place in leaps and bounds—which evolutionary biologists refer to as punctuated equilibrium—and by subtle, classic Darwinian-style product evolution.

How long will this take? I don’t know. The ultralight segment emerged in a flash, and that wound up being a bad thing for everyone. And it took years for the segment to recover from its poorly conceived and executed beginning. I don’t think that will happen with electric aircraft. Did we learn a lesson 40 years ago? I don’t think so. I don’t think people are particularly good at learning lessons from history. I think there are just mechanisms in place based on the big dollar funding driving these proposals that will, perhaps unintentionally, serve as a safety buffer. When there are big boxes behind a project, liability is a major concern. That wasn’t the case with ultralight aircraft, whose early manufacturers often did business from their garage.

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And over time the ultralight and very light segment overcame one of the biggest obstacles to its growth and success—the lack of suitable engines. Once they were developed and became available, a large number of really good airplanes emerged. Let’s hope the same thing happens with battery-powered planes, as well.

Going Direct: Why Electric Flight Leaves Me Cold

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