CORPORATE JET INSIDER
Is Electric Flight a Near-Future Reality?
As electric car use grows more widespread, some aviation insiders hope electric aircraft propulsion will catch on as well. Through LeapTECH, a project under the Transformative Aeronautics Concept Program, NASA researchers hope to push commercial and private aviation to utilize more electric-powered aircraft over the next decade.
Electric flight has been around a lot longer than you may think. The first crewed electric-powered flight took place in 1973 when pilots flew the MB-E1 for nine minutes, reaching an altitude of about 1,000 feet.
For the next 30 years, solar power dominated electric flight propulsion, but mostly on light and experimental aircraft.
Following improvements in energy storage, pilots launched the Lange Antares glider in 2003, using a lithium battery to power a propeller retractable after launch.
Over the next decade, electric-powered flight really took off with pilots setting or breaking new flight records nearly every year.
In 2011, pilots set seven new world records in a two-seat aircraft called the e-Genius when they reached 142 mph while climbing to an altitude of 20,000 feet in less than two minutes. Powered by an all-electric motor and a single battery, they flew 300 miles without stopping and didn’t burn a drop of fuel. Total energy cost for the flight? $3.
In July 2015, pilots completed a 37-minute flight across the English Channel from Lydd, England, to Calais, France, in the Airbus E-Fan. It was the first twin-engine, all-electric aircraft to take off and land using its own power.
Today, electric-powered flight is used mainly for light and small craft holding one or two passengers. Greener emission standards make it likely that electric-powered flight will be increasingly prevalent in small aircraft designs.
Research and development are underway for medium-sized and heavy aircraft, but the technology is still some way off. Business owners who want to purchase electric-powered private aircraft will likely have to wait another 20 or 30 years before nonexperimental planes emerge on the market.