Towplane Concept Tested For Electric Aircraft


California startup Magpie Aviation is proposing an in-flight tow system to increase the range of electric aircraft. Unless and until battery technology makes some major advances, electric aircraft useful load is limited by the need to load up with batteries to fly any distance. Magpie is testing a system that will allow a plane full of batteries to tow a plane full of passengers or cargo, thereby multiplying the range of the revenue flight.

The passenger aircraft would have enough battery power for takeoff, rendezvous with the tow plane and to fly to an alternate at the other end but would effectively be a towed glider for the cruise portion of the flight. The passenger plane could even be handed off to a second tow plane to allow an even longer flight. Key to the system is a tow-line capture system that the company demonstrated in March.

Magpie CEO Damon Vander Lind told Aviation Week use of the system’s purpose-built tow aircraft could dovetail with existing electric aircraft development programs. “It sounds kind of crazy, but we kept coming back to it because we couldn’t find any reason why we couldn’t do it,” said Vander Lind. “While our modeling shows that there is an advantage to doing a custom tow aircraft like this, we get a big advantage because the more expensive and critical passenger- and cargo-carrying ‘main aircraft’ has similar requirements to today’s aircraft and so adapts well to existing in-operation and already-in-development platforms.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. That video is pretty neat. The tow-line receiver looks like an in-flight “probe and drogue” refueling basket. It flies itself, automatically aligning to the incoming aircraft’s flight path. I can see this technology being quickly applied to in-flight refueling. The plane needing fuel just has to get close and fly straight forward – the receiver will line itself up, greatly reducing workload on the pilot.

    • That would be very nice for in flight refueling.

      Or an in flight, glider “re-tow”. Start with a normal glider launch and instead of landing, hook up and climb back up to altitude. I see a lot of time wasted when a glider lands, walk the glider back, line up on the runway, line up the tow plane, get the tow line all discombobulated, wait for a take off slot and back up to altitude.

      A “refueling point” for a glider if you will.

  2. Good point on the potential refueling application. But the intended application is ridiculous. Double the number of aircraft (and possibly aircrew), at great cost for each, both packed with (environmentally-harmful and temperamental) batteries, charged with power generated almost certainly by “non-renewable” means, all to achieve what? They are introducing even more complexity of both design and use, while expecting aircraft filled with trusting passengers to perform potentially dangerous in-flight maneuvers, as a matter of routine, just so that everyone can say we have electric aircraft? This is what it looks like when engineers try to solve a “problem” created by politicians and lobbyists seeking to enrich and (further) empower themselves. I wonder what happens in turbulence and less-than-ideal weather?

  3. Incredible. Stunning. Backwards progress. Were they juggling when they gave this interview, or was it straight faced?

  4. Uhhhh… yeah, technically feasible, but…

    I guess it really highlights the severe limitations of electric aircraft that this is even considered worth investigating!

    • Recharging is where the battery overheat problems begin. Igniting a plane full of passengers would not be a good look.

      • Fair enough. But Aviation has a history of being able to design away flaws. In this case for instance, before recharging, four other electric aircraft are launched. Each only has the useful load to carry one passenger for one hour. Also each has a boom mechanism that attaches to the revenue craft. The boom mechanism acts as an elevator to extract one passenger during the recharging operation, and then deposit them back into the revenue craft after the charge. Each of the four aircraft conduct this extraction before the recharge operation begins.

        About 30 minutes after that entire operation is completed, five other aircraft are launched to begin the process all over again.

        C’mon Bill. Lean in. We’re talking about sustainability and and zero emissions here. There’s billions in government grants up for grabs.

  5. This combo-concept reminds me of the Short-Mayo composite – another niche solution to the range problem.

  6. I agree with most of the commenters here. The “tow plane” will almost certainly be petroleum powered. So the electric plane ends up producing more green house gasses because the tow plane’s engine will be working harder to pull two plane through the air rather than just the one airplane. This whole idea is Rube Goldberg device to make the eco-warriors feel better while actually accomplishing nothing to clean up the environment.

  7. Rube Goldberg became famous for (laughably) proposing complex “solutions” to simple “problems.” SOMEBODY must have discovered one of his old cartoons!

    Indeed, “The inmates ARE running the asylum!”

    As for AvWeb–you need to mark this as “we don’t MAKE the news, we just REPORT IT”–lest someone consider that you actually endorse it.

    • So let me get this right, you are saying that Avweb should pre-select the news it reports, filter/censor out anything that looks screwball in their opinion before presenting it to you? If it’s aviation related and it’s credible, I am happy to hear about it and decide for myself whether it makes sense. I don’t want a news bubble filtering what I see, there are enough of those already.

  8. This “technology” works really well on a glider. The first time in testing the charge/tow line gets run through a set of rotating blades, either props or enclosed fan, the program will end.

    It is another example of people believing things are free: Just park another airplane in orbit and wait for the low energy density receiver parasite to arrive! Like others have commented, where did the Tug come from? It had to take up room at some airport, as if all airports aren’t already packed with planes. And now there needs to be two planes with everything functioning normally to get a load of people from A-B. What happens when the Tug has an issue, they cant connect the basket? For whatever reason, probably wx related. Lots more unplanned or emergency landings is what happens.

    Imagine the first plane taking off and a 2nd plane welding itself to the first plane. Then imagine both planes being melded into a simply larger plane, like an A380 with few passengers, mostly batteries needed to fly the distance. Same difference.

  9. This sounded like an Onion story and then we come to find out that someone is wasting money and probably more than a few of our tax dollars on this.

  10. All of this because we can’t trust governments and refuse to trust markets. Seriously, I think that’s what it boils down to. We can’t just go to carbon taxes because governments cannot be trusted by many (including me) to remove the other taxes nor do it without corruption. We won’t just go to carbon taxes because many others believe the solutions will be unfair and unbearable.

    So, we get this sort of idea as a compromise. How much pollution could it possibly be saving?

    • When the people (who will receive the tax/power) are 100% funding research to prove the need, it’s called bias. Corruption can only succeed by silencing all opposition.

  11. Sorry to see so many naysayers in aviation. Reducing high altitude emissions is a laudable goal. Breakthroughs often emerge from a wide range of improbable experiments. Kudos to Magpie for exploring new ideas.

    • Scrolling through the comments, it seems that you are about the only one that thinks this is a great idea. Maybe there is a message in that.

      When I was getting my Aero E degree 34 years ago, I thought a Span-Loader was a great idea (look that one up). It never happened, maybe for some technical reasons, but mostly due to resistance from the major airframers to depart from the tried and proven formula for making money (707 layout).

      Now working for the AF related to a tanker program and dealing with the challenges of aerial refueling, my view is it has zero chance of commercial use. For reasons other “naysayers” also mention.

  12. Since high altitude emissions have not caused increases in high altitude temperatures, the “goal” is laughable, not laudable.

  13. Lamer things (but not much lamer) have deployed the checkbooks of investors and govt programs, so as long as the front office’s salaries keep getting paid…

  14. As an Electrical Engineer, ATP, and Commercial Glider pilot, my evalutation of this is: Hahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaa… I weep for our country.

  15. “It sounds kind of crazy….” Yes, it does, and it is. And yet, look at what we are doing with our national electrical supply system in order to comply with the politically decided policy that we WILL run the country off solar & wind power rather than the eminently logical & practical nuclear that would have been a straightforward conversion with only minor rework of what already existed.

    Assuming the political decision on aviation becomes that we WILL convert all aircraft to solar/wind fueled, you do what you have to do to comply. As Jim Hanson notes, Rube Goldberg would have loved it all.