OSHKOSH — Of the 2,800 show planes at America’s biggest airshow, the aircraft that may have had the most impact on aviation’s future didn’t even leave the ground.
It was Airbus Group’s experimental E-Fan 1.2 hybrid electric airplane being unveiled for the first time in the U.S.
The red, white and blue European single-seater — which flies on batteries and regular aviation fuel — is so new and untested that U.S. aviation authorities wouldn’t allow it to fly last month at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s famous AirVenture — more commonly known as “Oshkosh.”
“We’re just at the beginning — the seventh test flight,” said Didier Esteyne, the plane’s lead test pilot and designer. “We still have a lot of work to do in front of us.”
Dirt and noise
So, with the price of traditional fossil fuels so low these days, why so much attention on electric planes?
Large commercial jets are blamed for 11% of all global transportation emissions, according to the federal government, and that number is predicted to explode by 50% by 2050. The E-Fan hybrid could help engineers make key breakthroughs to developing cleaner, quieter electric airliners that travelers might be flying on in less than two decades.
Crossing the Channel, cleanly and quietly
Esteyne made news last year when he flew an all-electric version of the plane — the E-Fan 1.1 — across the English Channel.
It was a meaningful moment for him and for everyone who helped develop the aircraft. “Even though I was flying alone, we were many people together when I crossed the Channel,” Esteyne recalled.
Esteyne was at Oshkosh to introduce his newest plane to America. Curious air show attendees gathered around him asking questions about how the E-Fan hybrid worked.
He told them about how the combustion engine gives the plane a 2-hour-15-minute range — extending the flight time of the previous version — the 1.1 — by an hour and 15 minutes. He explained how the combustion engine sits behind the cockpit, and is only used to charge the plane’s lithium-ion batteries which are embedded in the wings. The combustion engine doesn’t provide any of the plane’s thrust. The two ducted fan engines that do give the plane its thrust are mounted on each side of the fuselage. The plane takes off and lands on electric power only — to make it as quiet as possible. The combustion engine will charge the batteries only during the cruise portion of each flight.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Lots of technological hurdles stand in the way between the E-Fan and developing electric airliners — challenges like developing lightweight batteries that can store enough electricity for long distance flights.
Boeing conducted a small experimental electric hybrid plane program last year in the UK and finished a study with NASA that showed hybrid electric propulsion as having good potential for “air vehicles in the 2030 to 2050 timeline.”
What the future holds
Airbus is collaborating with Siemens and Daher to build an all-electric two-seater called E-Fan 2.0. It’s first flight is expected sometime next year.
But perhaps more importantly, this technology is sowing the seeds for passenger electric planes that we could be flying on as soon as 14 years from now.
In April, Siemens announced that it hopes to be selling hybrid electric passenger planes with Airbus by 2030 that will carry up to 100 passengers up to about 620 miles — that’s about the distance from New York to Detroit.
The planes would burn 25% less fuel by running electric power during takeoff and landing, Siemens said, making them almost silent at airports.
Cutting CO2 emissions is critical, but also, cities will need to build more airports as passenger traffic increases. And that brings with it concerns about noise.
“For me, reducing the noise is very important,” Esteyne said. “We know that in cities when you add airports, the noise and pollution are very important. This is the only way to do it.”
Noise and CO2 levels are only expected to rise, because in the next 20 years 3.2 billion additional airline passengers are predicted to fly worldwide, according to the International Air Transport Association. Those passengers are going to need more airplanes and airports.
It’s a statistic that only puts more pressure on airlines, airports, aviation authorities and governments to find cleaner and quieter ways to fly.