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Letter to the Editor

Dear Mr. Panzera and EAA Experimenter readers:

I am writing in response to comments written in the editorial “Ultralights! And Related Ramblings” appearing in the May, 2009 issue of EAA’s Experimenter publication regarding our E-Flight Initiative research and development project for electric flight.

The specific comments to which we feel a response is needed are as follows:

 “But all is not lost. When people like Randall Fishman of ElectraFlyer fame take the initiative and strap a wheelchair motor and some lithium polymer batteries to his weight-shift ultralight trike, I have a renewed faith. But at the same time I have to ask, why is he the only one doing it? ...But before someone corrects me and says that someone else is doing it-specifically Sonex-I have to disagree. Although it debuted its e-Flight Initiative at the same AirVenture where Randall flew his accomplishment, the website shows the latest progress as being ground tests of the motor and controller back in December of 2008. Nothing flying as of yet. So waiting for corporate concerns may not make the cut, but then again, that’s not what started the ultralight movement anyhow, it was the “I can do it” spirit that Randall has shown.”

The Sonex Aircraft, LLC and E-Flight team applaud Randall Fishman’s accomplishments in flying both of his electric aircraft variations, and in the case of the ElectraFlyer C, we feel his choice in airframe is a great one with the Moni motorglider, designed by our own Founder and President, John Monnett. Our original investigations into electric flight date back to a detailed feasibility study written in 1994 by our Chief Engineer, Pete Buck, for a project called “Flash Flight.” The Flash Flight project also intended to utilize the Moni, as it is a small, light-weight, highly-efficient aircraft only requiring approximately 18 hp to fly.

Taking a “big picture” perspective for a moment, it must be made clear that our E-Flight Initiative project differs from Fishman’s ElectraFlyer C and our own Flash Flight concept in one fundamental and extremely significant way: The E-Flight electric system is intended to provide a 55 kilowatt power package (approximately 73 hp) for direct adaptation of existing light-sport aircraft currently using internal combustion engines in the 80 hp range. This is not simply a matter of strapping a wheelchair motor and some LiPo batteries to an airframe and going flying. Not one single component of the E-Flight system is currently available “off the shelf.” The parts simply do not exist. Every component in the E-Flight system, including our motor, integrated switching electronics, main controller unit, battery management electronics, charging system, and instrumentation are being designed, built, and tested by the E-Flight team as completely new and unique products.

Much progress has been made since our website’s last video posting at the end of 2008, however, all progress has been in the continuing development of these new, proprietary components, and there is very little additional information that can be released to the public at this time.

Make no mistake about it: this is an exceedingly difficult development project. This is the largest, most powerful, and lightest-weight system ever developed for aviation. With the increase in scale to a 270-amp, 200-volt system, there are enormous challenges to overcome, many of which critically impact safety in handling lethal levels of electricity, both in our research and design (R&D) testing, and eventually at the consumer, end-user level.
The challenges are significant; however, we firmly believe that the end-product will be well-worth the wait.

Mention was made of “corporate concerns” with regard to E-Flight: Yes, Sonex Aircraft is an LLC corporation, just as Randall Fishman’s Electric Aircraft Corporation is also a “corporate” endeavor. The E-Flight Initiative is still very-much a grass-roots project, however. The day-to-day focus of the Sonex Aircraft team is the sale and continuing support of our existing product line. The E-Flight development team consists of four engineers and designers who have dedicated literally thousands of hours of uncompensated time to this project thus-far.

The total budget for the E-Flight Initiative is equivalent to the cost of a new, ready-to-fly LSA (a “beer budget” compared to large-scale corporate R&D projects) and the development of the E-Flight system is driven by Sonex Aircraft, LLC’s commitment to providing the best performance per dollar, keeping all of our products affordable for the sport pilot. Design of components and sourcing of parts for the system is also cost-driven in this way. There are several alternative design paths we could have followed, perhaps offering a faster arrival at first flight, however, they would have resulted in a system that would be prohibitively expensive for the marketplace. The E-Flight team is currently seeking private and government grant funding so that development may continue at an accelerated pace without negatively impacting our core mission of serving Sonex Aircraft and AeroConversions customers.

We have no qualms with the editor’s urgings for more innovation at the grass-roots levels of EAA membership. After all, that’s the brilliant heritage from which we operate today, and the foundation of the extraordinary privilege extended to us as Americans to build and fly our own creations. We simply ask that you don’t consider Sonex to be out of the picture! The simple and honest answer to the editor’s question regarding why more people are not pursuing the development of electric flight is that this is not an easy goal to reach. This is very hard work we’ve undertaken with the E-Flight Initiative, and with any R&D project, success is not guaranteed. We are confident, however, that we can achieve the goals we’ve established for ourselves in 2007, and we are committed to making electric flight a reality for the sport pilot.

We are always open to any member of the press or public in answering inquiries regarding the status of E-Flight, or any other Sonex or AeroConversions project. Just pick-up the phone or send us an email so you can write that next article or editorial from a more informed perspective, but please, don’t count us out!

Mark Schaible
Sonex Aircraft, LLC

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