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From the Editor

CAFE Time!

More about electric flight

By Patrick Panzera, Editor – Experimenter, EAA 555743  

Pat Panzera

Right about this same time last year, I was writing my editorial just before heading out to attend the CAFE Foundation’s Electric Aircraft Symposium, just as I am this year. A lot has happened in the past 12 months  to sway me over the fence I was sitting on last year -  not really sure if electric flight would be viable in the foreseeable future - but I’m still not completely void of a healthy amount of skepticism. I haven’t drunk the Kool-Aid yet, but the glass is on the table.

In my May 2010 editorial, written after attending the 2010 CAFE event, I wrote how gliderlike electric aircraft will have to be in order to propel the plane with such low power. And when I look at images of the competitors of the upcoming CAFE Green Flight Challenge (a NASA-funded $1.65 million seven-day event held this July 11 to 17), the 13 officially registered aircraft nearly all look like either self-launch gliders or Lancairs with glider wings. Is this a bad thing? No, but it does prove the point I made last year that every bit of drag reduction possible will have to come into play as the powerplants are just not here yet.

At this time in the technological race, the designers are really pitting airframe against airframe, not motor against motor. In order to truly define who has the best system, shouldn’t the competitors be using the same airframe? And in all reality, shouldn’t the benchmark be equal to what we can currently achieve with internal combustion engines?

In my opinion, when we can take the most successful electric aircraft and swap the propulsion system (motor, controller, and battery) for an efficient internal combustion engine (and fuel tanks) and compare everything apples to apples(the cost of energy from the grid, battery TBO, motor TBO, controller TBO, charging system initial cost and TBO, fuel at the current rate, engine TBO, oil consumption, spark plug replacement, and full-maintenance intervals) – in other words, if the electric plane can compete with its dinosaur-burning counterpart – then we’d have a winner.

Until then, electric aircraft may be way cool, but not practical. However, as long as progress is linear at a minimum, there’s still hope for the future. Stay tuned for my report after I get back from CAFE Electric Aircraft Symposium 5 this month. We’ll see how far we’ve come in the past year.

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