Eighty five years ago, Charles Lindbergh became the first pilot to successfully fly from New York to Paris non-stop, claiming a substantial cash prize and securing a place in history in the process. Now another world record holder, Chip Yates, has announced plans to take on the same aviation challenge ... but this time the aircraft making the 3,600 mile non-stop flight will be all-electric. The ambitious project is still in its early stages but the Flight of the Century team has already developed a patent-pending battery deployment solution to replenish depleted batteries while the aircraft is in flight.
In 1919, French-born New York City hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered a reward of US$25,000 to the first aviator(s) to successfully complete a non-stop flight from New York to Paris or vice-versa. At the time, airplane technology had not advanced enough for anyone to take up the challenge but by the mid-1920s, the first attempts were made. Several lives were lost and other pilots were injured during a number of attempts but the prize remained unclaimed. Then in May 1927, the Spirit of St Louis was flown into Roosevelt Field by a young airmail pilot named Charles Lindbergh. The rest, as they say, is history.
Carrying some 451 gallons of fuel, a few sandwiches and a little water, Lindbergh took off from Long Island on May 20 and headed for France. The "Lone Eagle" landed at Le Bourget Field 33.5 hours later, where a crowd of 100,000 enthusiastic French followers rushed the plane. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale ratified the world record flight ten days later and Lindbergh took his prize on June 16, 1927. Public interest in aviation mushroomed and Lindbergh became a national hero.
Electric aircraft design is currently at that exciting, edgy early development stage and long-haul flight is viewed as something for a time way off in the future. Current FIM record holder for the world's fastest electric motorcycle, William "Chip" Yates believes that such a future is within our reach right now and has set his sights on proving it.
His newly-formed company Flight of the Century (FOTC) has filed a notice of intent and concept paper with the U.S. Department of Energy detailing plans to design, build and fly an electric aircraft non-stop for 24 hours utilizing the company's Infinite Range Electric Flight technology. This involves creating a mothership capable of docking with unmanned flying battery pods to keep the juice flowing, while also ejecting depleted battery packs for guided descent and recovery for recharge and reuse.
When docking is not a practical option, a Jettison and Balance System (JBS) has been developed that extends an aircraft's range by splitting the battery packs into two or more segments. When one segment is depleted, it's jettisoned and guided down to a ground or ocean-based collection site using GPS-guided parachutes where it's recharged for redeployment. The remaining battery packs are then rebalanced to maintain the aircraft's center of gravity. FOTC says that making ten such drops during a flight would nearly double the total range due to the reduction in weight.
An R&D team that includes engineers from the A160T Hummingbird Unmanned Rotorcraft project we covered a few years ago believes that such an approach is scalable and could see a near future of long-range electric passenger aircraft winging their way across the oceans. As if to prove such notions, Yates has also revealed his intention to pilot a yet-to-be-designed aircraft from New York to Paris without stopping.
Yates plans on following the exact same historic path that Lindbergh carved in 1927, and for added authenticity the aircraft will take off from as near to the now closed Hempstead Plains Aerodrome - or Roosevelt Field to use the name by which it later became famous - as possible. It will maintain an equal or faster speed to that achieved by Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis and will fly at the same (or lower) altitude of up to 10,000 feet.
"Our purpose in setting out on this very difficult path is to force innovation that drives electric flight technology forward in a significant and measurable way," said Yates. "You could fly this route today in an unmanned solar craft at 80,000 feet being blown over there by the Jetstream, or in something incredibly slow, or in a balloon, but that doesn't get our society any closer to realizing long-range, legitimate payload, electric flight capabilities that everybody can actually benefit from."
Work on the audacious project started in April with the purchase of a Burt Rutan designed Long-EZ Aircraft. This futuristic-looking veteran is currently being converted to electric and will be used as a test bed for developing the battery pack parachute jettison, UAV battery pack jettison and UAV battery pack re-docking technologies. Yates also hopes to use the Long-ESA (Electric Speed & Altitude) - as it's now called - for forthcoming world record attempts for the fastest manned electric airplane and highest altitude for a manned electric airplane... depending on his successful completion of pilot training.
"I have a full-time flight instructor on my team, Tim Reynolds, so we fly six days a week to get me my pilot’s license quickly in time for flight testing of the Long-ESA," Yates told us. "I started flying this month, and flew two straight weeks in the month (the other time dedicated to the plane development), have already built up around 25 hours flight time and have just completed my first solo flight. We are on track for me to have my license by the end of June, in time for the taxi tests of the Long-ESA in early July."
"The conversion of the Long-ESA is on schedule for an early July taxi test and first flight. The plane left our shop last week and went to our fabrication shop for the custom electric motor and propeller shaft mounting fabrication. Where most planes bolt the props onto the crankshaft of the gasoline motor, our plane has a separate propeller shaft in bearings and the motor sits above and slightly behind."
"We run our electric motor through a reduction, because it makes peak power of 258 horsepower at 5,800 RPM, whereas our custom built CATTO propeller that is optimized for top speed, is being spun at 3,100 RPM. The electric motor and controller are customized and liquid cooled, and controlled by our in-house software that manages the entire electric powerplant including KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) testing that we are planning for descents to recover energy."
"The maiden flight of the Long-ESA at the Mojave Air and Space Port in July will use the custom made lithium-ion polymer battery packs that we designed and built in-house for the electric superbike program - 453 volts and 12.4 kWh, capable of 600 amp continuous output, 31 Ah. The pack weight is 230 pounds (104 kg)."
At the same time, FOTC is designing and building a series of custom battery packs for the Long-ESA that will be installed in a custom pod mounted under the plane and in the back seat area along the center of gravity. The new packs are being built to specifications outlined in the JBS shuttling system, whereby as one pack is depleted and jettisoned for guided parachute descent to a recovery station on the ground, the remaining pack (or packs) is rebalanced along the center of gravity.
Meanwhile development of plans for the Lindbergh flight continue apace. Although not scheduled to take place until 2014, there's a lot to do before then. The current design of the Lindbergh aircraft shows a wingspan greater than 100 feet (30 meters), twin props and an all carbon custom airframe but it's still early days.
"The images of the Lindbergh plane show a hard docked, winged UAV on top," said Yates. "In reality, we are planning to use a soft tethered approach where I fly the Lindbergh mothership up to the UAV and from behind, I fly into the UAV’s trailing tether and lock into place. At that point, the flight controls of the UAV are slaved to my flight controls as we transition into a formation flight. There is more technical detail here on the tethering lock, wireless flight controls strategy and where the UAV actually flies relative to the mothership during recharging, but that's still confidential at the moment."
"The battery cells for the Lindbergh flight are in the lab right now but they're not yet ready for prime time. They're about twice as energy dense as the 145 W-h/kg cells we are using right now."
Yates has revealed to us that Ballistic Recovery Systems - manufacturers of rocket deployed parachutes for aircraft like Cirrus - has agreed to donate an engineer to the project and to help with the development of a ballistic parachute for the electric Long-ESA to enhance the safety of the flight testing program.
"We may also have a chance to involve the US Navy at China Lake in our development," he said. "They've expressed a strong interest, and they are experts in UAV testing and development. They have offered us the use of their military controlled airspace, along with their test range telemetry, radar, tracking cameras, etc for our Long-ESA speed and altitude attempts, in order to capture and document our missions."
FOTC is also working closely with Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of the trailblazing Spirit of St Louis pilot, to promote electric flight and work on the Lindbergh flight plan. The team has recently finished working on NASA-based software that will identify the best locations along the route to launch and recover the battery pods. The current thinking is that five UAV pods will be launched during the flight, with all ejected units being recovered and recharged.
We'll be closely following the progress of this exciting game-changing project, so be sure to check back for updates.
Source: Flight of the CenturyView gallery - 16 images