Electric Flight From Behind the Wheel

Rear cockpit.

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For reasons somewhat mysterious but likely related to successful grocery shopping, I recently returned to my professional automotive womb by signing up for a short test-driving gig. The two-week assignment was to verify the range of a new all-electric European car of recognizable sporting pedigree.

At a minimum the job marked the end of my first decade of sampling either pure electric or hybrid cars. As expected, the gains in performance and sophistication in this time have been measurable, and the cars I drove offered deeply satisfying acceleration, the sort normal people might label incredible or anti-social depending on their joie de vivre. Unfortunately, such fun stuff was not on my test card this time around. After 10 days of mind-numbingly repetitious driving at side-street posted speed limits, it turns out the cars were good for around 300 miles or more of range under standard, clement weather conditions. Furthermore, the cars, which were early production units but in ways acted as late prototypes, were electronically glitchy, filled to dripping with high-zoot, menu-driven dashboard distractions and priced like a Los Angeles condominium.

We’ve been talking about electric airplanes for a long time. This article from April 2013—a quick eight years ago—nails the main issue: The world awaits breakthrough battery technology. And we’re still waiting.

Such reexposure to electric power—which I enjoy very much—inevitably got me thinking about possibilities for the same in puddle-jumping aviation such as most of us practice. Now past its initial novelty stage, electric aviation propulsion has motored to that nascent period where wild enthusiasm must give way to more sober business and practicality concerns. Certainly mildly workable e-aircraft have been brought to market; Slovenian airframer Pipistrel already offers well-regarded electric trainers and motorgliders, along with electric power packages for those experimenters ambling the taxiways with two soldering guns slapping their hips.

Less visible to we enthusiasts at this point, over at the big airports commercial aviation is very much feeling the promise of electro-aviating. They’re up to their gear doors in proposals, prototypes and demonstrators for pure-electric, short-haul, commuter-type aircraft. Talk of up to 40-seat cattle cars is on the table. In fact, the commercial electric market is crowded with entrepreneurs, investment capitalists, stock specialists, some of the giant airframers and others who send out press releases full of terms such as “vertical mobility” or “decarbonize.”

Hit the Electron Pedal!

It’s safe to assume few of us have flown via electric power at this point, while some of us have no doubt taken a spin in an electric car. If you’ve yet to “hit the electron pedal,” don’t be surprised to find you like it when you do get the chance because electric power certainly offers advantages. It’s torquey so the power hits immediately, and in aircraft it is well matched to making oomph at propeller-happy rpm, so there is no need to enunciate aviation’s most nauseating acronym, “PSRU,” anymore. Similarly there is no need to warm up electric motors, and unlike the whirring innards of our storied piston engines, they have minimal moving parts. There is near-nothing to wear out, and maintenance is blessedly minimal to be essentially non-existent. That also means reliability is on near-parity with gravity, an especially fine thing in aviation. It also means trips to the oil dump will be quickly forgotten, and you’ll have to find another way to mix your blood and oil as decapitating oil filters into finger-slicing canisters will be just another granddad story.

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Furthermore, if I was less experienced I’d cheerily report electric motor simplicity also means an idiot-proof pilot workload, but surely we’ll collectively find some way to screw up flipping a light switch. It’s just going to take more talent.

For aircraft designers electric power is, at least partially, a promising new playground. Where once we had to hang that big old lump of steel and aluminum, with it’s sprouting forest of cylinder cooling fins, via the magic of permanent magnets there is only the need to package a small stack of dinner plates because that’s about the size of a fly-to-breakfast electric motor. Pointy little noses on slender fuselages ought to become fashionable, and some of us might not have to make so many excuses as to why we want tandem seating in our next build.

But above all, electric power could be, like the little birdy says, “Cheap! Cheap! Cheap!” Well, cheap after acquiring an electric fly-buggy. Initial costs—especially if you need a whole new airframe to scoop all the benefits—could be full-on pickpocket stuff. But operating costs are lower than Red Bull racers under that bridge in Budapest, and maintenance should be about free. Condition inspections would consist of making sure the boxes and wires are still under the cowling, but what do you bet you’ll still have to change the D-cells in your ELT?

Not Ready for Prime Time

Naturally, there are real downsides, namely the inconvenience that electric power isn’t quite ready for prime time, and its overarching success is hardly assured. For starters, it’s heavier than sin, thanks to the U-boat bilge full of batteries required. The low energy density of today’s batteries is pitiful compared to a few gallons of 100LL on a joule-per-kilo basis to be fashionably metric about it. Yes, the holy grail of solid state electron storage beckons like a light in the night—or a mirage in the desert—but until such a storage breakthrough occurs, it’s tough seeing electric power going mainstream. For now, thoroughly enjoyable local sunset flights backed up by solar panel charging is electricity’s big contribution to sport flying.

There’s also the chicken-or-egg question regarding electric infrastructure. Without mainstreaming there won’t be any call for a thick, high-voltage cable hanging next to the gas pump (now there’s one for the lawyers), and without that big, fat cable at every airport, no one is flying cross-country on batteries unless someone standardizes batteries and has fresh ones stockpiled around the country. That’s fine for airliners plying their iron-tight schedules, but not quite on for the flitting about we do in our freedom machines.

And so I’m left with my impressions of intoxicatingly fast, gloriously quiet, expensive electric cars. They provide a wonderful driving experience and in some ways are much superior to the liquid fueled variety. Furthermore, in automotive there seems an inevitability to it, a sense of huge societal forces on the swell. Certainly the greens look no further than the missing tailpipe and declare, “See, no emissions!” and the politicians follow up with subsidies. Never mind the fossil-fueled electrical plant down the street.

But in aviation, the twin gorgons of excessive weight and missing government subsidies couple with the financial blood bath of initiating a whole new infrastructure. That makes me think I might be picking clinkers out of spark plugs for a while yet.

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