Electric Aircraft & Air Show Possibilities

By Scott Spangler on August 19th, 2010

JW-AV-5 On many levels the 2010 Electric Aircraft World Symposium was a surprise. Sponsored by GE Aviation and held at the EAA museum on AirVenture Friday, I expected a geek fest with a small audience of a hundred or less, because that’s the space available in the Founder’s Wing, the symposium’s original location. But when I hoofed my way to the museum, I saw Kermit Week’s Mosquito parked outside. Being an old all-wood airplane, I’ve never seen EAA do that before. The reason, I soon discovered, is that three or four times as many people had signed up, so they moved all the airplanes out of the Eagle Hangar (except for the XP-51), to make room for everyone.

The symposium delivered on my geek-fest expectations. Sitting at one of the round tables up front, three engineers networked and shared highlights of their careers and their most challenging projects. The agenda for the day-long event essentially followed the same path, with speakers from GE Aviation, Sikorsky Innovations, Tesla Motors, NASA, and electric aircraft builders including John Monnett and Pete Buck, the driving force behind Sonex e-Flight Initiative. Batteries were the primary topic of discussion, and Bertrand Piccard and Solar Impulse pilot Andre Borschberg talked about their project and the historic overnight flight of its photovoltaic flying machine that has a circumnavigation dream.

While the technical information was interesting, a good primer on a field that grows ever more important with time, the keynote speaker, Burt Rutan, started with what we might see in Electric Flight: The Next 10 Years. Yes, he said, electric flight is now impractical, “but you have to start someplace.” To see where it first might deliver a commercial application, he suggested a YouTube search for 3D flight, what pilots flying electric RC models call fixed-wing hovering and stationary rolls made possible when an airplane has more power than weight.

Noting that he’d been coming to Oshkosh forever, Rutan said he stopped watching the daily air shows decades ago because they are loud, boring, and repetitive, with all the performers doing the same maneuvers in different combinations. (I’m right there with you, Burt.) Just imagine, he said, spinning the dream, of aerobats flying silent 3D performances  in scaled-up electric powered airplanes, like those seen on YouTube. “That is,” Burt said, nodding toward FAA Administrator Randy Babbit, who welcomed the symposium participants and said the FAA was a willing partner in the e-flight effort, “if Randy will let us do it.”

It’s my guess that 3D airplane flight will fly with the FAA long before 3D helicopter demos, another YouTube look at the future. Sustained inverted flight and other maneuvers must make the Red Bull aerobatic helo jealous, and it gives the team at Sikorsky Innovations something to shoot for, and I can’t wait! –Scott Spangler

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