Electric aircraft makes first English Channel crossing

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The E-Fan technology demonstrator landing at Calais-Dunkerque Airport(Credit: Airbus Group)

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An electric aircraft has crossed the English Channel for the first time. The question is, which one is it? On Friday, Airbus Group announced that its E-Fan technology demonstrator claimed the prize by flying from Lydd, Kent to Calais. However, it soon came to light that French Aerobat Hugues Duval had flown from Dover to Calais 12 hours earlier on Thursday in a Cri-Cri electric plane. Exactly which one gets in the record books may hinge on a technicality.

The first powered flight across the Channel was achieved by Louis Blériot in his Blériot XI on July 25, 1909. Last week's attempts at being the first electric plane to make the same flight was something of a flashback to those days, with no less than three competitors vying for the £1,000 (US$1,500) prize offered by the Daily Mail newspaper.

Of course, the money was mainly symbolic, since Airbus alone sunk £14 million (US$22 million) into its effort. In addition, though the flight across the Channel may seem small compared to the ocean-spanning legs of the Solar Impulse 2 circumnavigation attempt, the channel jumpers are aiming for a more immediately practical form of electric flight that could see 100-passenger electric hybrid planes entering service by 2030.

The first of the three competitors to fall by the wayside was Pipistrel, a Slovenian company that had to abandon its effort when Siemens, the makers of the plane's electric motor, refused to allow its motor to fly over water.

This seemed to leave the field open to the Airbus E-Fan. On July 10, the E-Fan took off from Lydd Airport with test pilot Didier Esteyne at the controls and flew 46 mi (74 km) to Calais in 36 minutes at an altitude of about 3,500 ft.

Built with an all-composite construction, the two-seater E-fan is 22 ft (6.7 m) long and has a wingspan of 31 ft (9.5 m). From the outside, it almost looks like a toy jet aircraft with a pair of nacelles that aren't jets, but ducted, variable pitch fans. These are spun by two electric motors powered by a series of 250 V lithium-ion polymer batteries. The ducting increases the thrust while reducing noise, and by centrally mounting them, the fans provide better control.

The E-Fan landed in Calais to considerable media attention, but the event went from congratulations to confusion as the Associated Press reported that Hugues Duval had quietly taken off from Dover in his Cri Cri and had landed in Calais some 12 hours earlier on July 9.

With a wingspan of about 16 ft (4.9 m) and two 35 bhp Electravia electric motors, the Cri Cri flew at 65 mph (105 km/h) and had a 25 min range.

According to AP, Duval's flight took only 17 minutes, which was shorter than the Airbus flight because the latter aircraft circled Lydd Airport after taking off while a helicopter carried out a visual safety check.

One difference in Duval's flight that may be a point of controversy is that he did not have formal permission to take off from Dover, so his aircraft was towed into the air by a conventional plane. This assistance may place recognizing Duval's record flight in jeopardy.

"We are not worried," said Airbus spokesman Jeremy Greaves said in a Daily Mail interview. "It would not count because we understand he set off from another plane. We applaud the intrepid aviator that did this, although the actual details are yet to be confirmed."

The video below shows the E-Fan flight.

Source: Airbus

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