Airbus' Asterisked Record

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When Louis Bleriot hopped across the English Channel from France in 1909, the Channel still represented a formidable, historic geographic and cultural divide that exists today only in the imagination; cross it on a ferry in a few hours or on commercial flight without even looking out the window. Or in an electric airplane with great fanfare amidst the sort of snit only aviation could produce.

By now you’ve read our story that the German electrical giant, Siemens, pulled the plug—literally—on Pipistrel’s plans to fly its Alpha Electro across the Channel, seizing the bragging rights for being the first to do so. But Airbus, with its E-Fan trainer, had scheduled its own Channel flight and politics and optics being what they are, did Airbus put the squeeze on Siemens to stifle Pipistrel? Siemens provides the motor for the Electro—a loaner, it turns out—and it’s involved with Airbus on the E-Fan project. Once it learned of Pipistrel’s plans for the Channel flight, Siemens pulled its support for the Electro project and has now demanded to have its motor back. Neither company has allowed us to peek at the developmental agreement governing this work, but if it precluded overwater flying, Siemens didn’t mention that. Nor were we privy to any tense phone conversations that may have taken place in the background. Did Pipistrel try to pull a fast one here? If so, isn’t that the nature of competition?

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the Airbus management suite for this one. I’m sure the champagne had been ordered, the press notified and the photo aircraft arranged for this historic occasion when the crisis erupted. Pipistrel would be first, spoiling the fun. It’s times like these that you like to have a calm, experienced marcomm person to offer sound advice. I don’t think that “hey, call Siemens and have them strong-arm Pipistrel” would come immediately to mind. And I can’t imagine that Siemens' reputation as a trustworthy supplier of cutting-edge aviation engines will exactly be burnished, either, in my view. Not that it will dent their bottom line in the slightest.

Claiming to be first to cross the English Channel in an electric airplane may have Bleriotesque cred, but in the end, it’s just PR. But PR cuts both ways so when we journalists refer to Airbus’ first go at the Channel in an electric airplane, we’ll have to asterisk it.  

Beach Landings: Again

I don’t make a habit of second-guessing pilots involved in accidents, so I’m pushing my own envelope here. If you saw the engine-out landing of a Super Cub on a beach at Carlsbad, California, on July 4, what was your reaction? Mine was instinctual: Seriously, that’s the best place you could think of to put that airplane?

This is close to home for me because here at Venice, Florida, my home base, a Cherokee landed on the beach almost exactly a year ago and tragically killed two people, a 36-year-old Army NCO and his nine-year-old daughter. The pilot later said he was worried about ditching in deep water.

That’s an understandable fear but as I said then and I will say again as my personal version of a public service announcement, inshore water landings in the surf or well off the beach are eminently survivable. Years of accident data have shown this to be true and I don’t see anything that has changed that. As I pointed out in this article and this blog, the data is convincing.

If you’re forearmed with such knowledge, then perhaps that will give you the confidence to take the deeper water offshore rather than to try to thread through the humanity on a crowded beach. Forget the airplane; if the engine quits, the insurance company owns it.

Venice Airport is smack on the Gulf Coast, so every time I take off, I immediately scan the beach—carefully—as a potential emergency landing site. If there are people on it, I don’t look again, but register the water offshore as a potential touchdown area.

I can’t apply my standards to the pilot of the Super Cub because I don’t know what he knew and what he thought his circumstances were. The guy in the seat has to make the decision and live with the consequences. In this case, there was only one minor injury. Call that success. But if you’re confronted with the same challenge and the beach looks dauntingly crowded, just know that the odds of going into deeper water to avoid any swimmers and surviving are overwhelmingly in your favor. You could do worse than to spare people running for their lives to avoid a landing airplane.

EARLY FRIDAY A.M. UPDATE: Pipistrel announced late Thursday night that Hugues Duval flew his CRI-CRI Cristaline aircraft, a small pure electric twin, across the English Channel late Thursday evening local time. Whether officially recognized or not, Duval's flight becomes the first crossing of the Channel by an electric aircraft.

Comments (24)

In my not so humble opinion. Hmmm, a twin electric vs a single. Airbus vs Pipistrel. Bully vs underdog. Underdog will always be remembered and benefit by free very expensive PR. Pipistrel looking to gain by Airbus flaws. Back at the hangar, Pipistrel has thinks they've lost nothing except the loaner motor. Airbus realizes negative marketing threat and buys Pipistrel. Everybody happy. End of story.

On the Carlsbad beach landing. All available Bertorelli data does not reach the novice or it's disregarded influenced by a glimmer of hope that the landing would be uneventful. Expect more of the same in the future. We need constant reminders here.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 9, 2015 9:16 PM    Report this comment

I called Airbus and Siemens out on Twitter about it. Siemens replied, basically, saying they demanded the cancellation in the name of safety. When I pointed out that the Pipistrel is a certificated, production aircraft and therefore the crossing was no more unsafe than doing it in a 150 - or else it wouldn't have been certificated in the first place - they didn't reply.

Posted by: Jay Maynard | July 10, 2015 12:30 AM    Report this comment

Colomban Cri-Cri in front by a nose. Very interesting!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 6:41 AM    Report this comment

I think Siemens is to be commended, obviously they must consider their motor to be unsafe and unreliable.

As to the beach landing, maybe the guy thought he was on the coast of North Carolina and the sharks would get him.

Way to go Duwal and Cri-Cri !! Obviously no fear of sharks or Airbus.

Posted by: Richard Montague | July 10, 2015 7:07 AM    Report this comment

I don't know Paul, but I think a big factor in a decision to go in the water depends on what you're flying. If I were in a Cub, about all I can envision is being upside-down in the water amongst a bunch of broken bits, trying to get the belt undone somewhere under belly flab. I think I'd prefer to breath whilst doing that.

In SoCal, there are many surfers out quite-a-ways waiting to catch a wave, so there is still a risk to others.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | July 10, 2015 9:38 AM    Report this comment

So who is Hughes Duwal?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 9:47 AM    Report this comment

Of course the French jumped up and down, Louis Bleriot was French after all.
And typical of Germans to screw their Slovene partner -- national stereotypes arrive with reason.
I am fairly sure Hughes Duwal is French, his electric Cri-Cri has been around for a while and, dare I say it, was the inspiration for the Airbus project. So take that you cabbage crunchers!
Bleriot's channel stunt was quickly followed by a crossing of the Med from Marseilles to Algiers, I believe. Probably a leap too far for the electrics but Pipistrel could look closer to home and cross the Alps or circle Mont Blanc. Only in that case it would probably be wise to land on the Italian side...

Posted by: John Patson | July 10, 2015 10:05 AM    Report this comment

Edd, I can only go with the data. It revealed that regardless of aircraft type, the egress and survival rate for inshore ditchings is nearly 90 percent. Having said that, it's probably a little higher for beach landings. I didn't pull the data on that one.

From the research.. "in the subgroup that involved fatalities, high wing airplanes were noticeably underepresented: Although they were involved in 49 percent of all the ditchings, they represent only 27 percent of the fatalities. On the other hand, low wing airplanes represent 41 percent of the total ditchings, but accounted for 68 percent of the fatalities."

In the end, the balance is trading a slightly lower survival rate in deeper water against a higher rate on the beach but the chance of killing or injuring someone. On a very crowded beach, for me personally, this is a no brainer. I'll take my chances in the water, high wing or low wing.

With just a few people on the beach, it's not so simple. Everyone has to make their own decision. I would hope they would make it with some survival rate data in mind.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 10, 2015 10:13 AM    Report this comment

A bit more thanks to the story on aerobuzz.fr (for those who read French it is an excellent site).
The Cri-Cri, powered by Electravia motors is the same as currently holds the world speed record for electric flight, a whole 26o kph, set in 2010.
Mr Duwal was towed from Calais to mid channel, dropped the tow, flew to Dover, circled the town and then back to Calais, all at 150kph, with the crossing taking 17 minutes.
The really funny bit is that the Airbus PR people were already at the Calais airport, putting up the tent, arranging the bubbly and the band, and were not amused...
Duwal is Breton, which explains a lot. They have a reputation for being even more ungovernable than the rest of the French.

Posted by: John Patson | July 10, 2015 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the data Paul.

Maybe my mindset is from flying floatplanes and amphibious floats, where it seems that when tripping over something, extended gear, or flotsam, people don't get out.

Of course, when I think about it, I don't have real data to support that thinking either. Needn't look it up, I don't do that any more. AZ is quite dry.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | July 10, 2015 10:33 AM    Report this comment

A video on BBC shows the airbus e-plane made its crossing today. Airbus suggested the Cri-Cri flight was not valid for some reason.

Posted by: Edd Weninger | July 10, 2015 11:00 AM    Report this comment

The much higher fatality rate for low-wing ditching events caught my eye.

Having changed from high wing fixed to low wing retractable a few years back I now feel more comfortable during our over-water journeys due to the retracts' better ditching characteristics. Wonder if there is any delta when comparing retract to retract?

Posted by: John Wilson | July 10, 2015 11:03 AM    Report this comment

"Those magnificent men and their flying machines."

John Patsin, thanks for the details on Mr. Duwal's electric flight and bio. An amusing story. On the flip side Airbus has hit a new low.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 11:17 AM    Report this comment

Aha, Airbus makes a comeback - first electric twin vs first electric single. Ok, we good!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 1:37 PM    Report this comment

Scusami, two seater vs single seater.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 2:01 PM    Report this comment

Go to whichever extent necessary to keep the fat cats fat and the little people struggling.

Who knows how many developments have been successfully stonewalled to death. Whatever it takes to avoid reality to find us. Hashtag "EggOnYourFace" for Siemens & Airbus, but we can bet our monopoly money on this being one of the rare instances where this industries nasty and corrupted side shows its ugly self. Its everywhere, we just prefer not to see or acknowledge it. Next time it will be better hidden.

Pipistrel will not suffer for this sad farce and blunder, they know they could have done it.
Screw the English Channel. Cross a bigger pond, preferably without a Siemens motor.

Posted by: Jason Baker | July 10, 2015 5:11 PM    Report this comment

Jason, I agree. IMO, the spin by Airbus is disgraceful. Pipistrel, a small and fragile entity, seems to have been strong-armed into submission. Kudos to Hughes Duwal, I like the fighting spirit of the man. Should make a good movie.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 10, 2015 6:51 PM    Report this comment

I would have loved to be there when Mr. Duval landed, just to see the look on the Airbus representatives faces....but of course Gen. Yeager would point out that this has been done before, which he is very correct. I just like the fact that the little guy didn't let himself get bullied by The Company. All with a 1970's design. If any of you are going to Oshkosh, there should still be one at the EAA museum. Tiny thing.

Posted by: Albert Dewey | July 11, 2015 5:20 AM    Report this comment

"Wonder if there is any delta when comparing retract to retract?"

I think there's too little data to even hazard a guess. The research I did drew from 179 ditchings. Given the inevitable errors in reporting, that's a tiny number so I felt you could only draw the very broadest conclusions, one of which was the high survival rates in general.

So general observations can be made about overall outcomes and high wing vs low wing. Beyond that, it gets fuzzy.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 11, 2015 6:51 AM    Report this comment

Albert Dewey, a "retrofit". Good point as old tech is keeping GA alive and still making headlines.

On beach landings. The order is in saving others first, save yourself second and save the aircraft if possible. Landing on the water when no one is on the beach is stupid. Landing on the beach when crowded is stupid. Landing on surfers is stupid too. Finito.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | July 11, 2015 9:13 AM    Report this comment

Raf, not so easy. Sorry. Landing on the water can and has worked successfully many times.
A bunch of rubber hanging out the bottom have sunk a fair amount of seaplanes (for example) and killed more than enough people. Physics and lack of awareness do the rest. I've written and read hundreds of thousands of words on that topic.

I'd hazard a guess that a Cub can be dipped without flipping. You write the airframe off without a flinch in order to save a life or reduce the count of injured people. Not sure if banner tow pilots fly with helmets, knowing what looms above in a regular Cub. If the beach is available, it may be the better choice to go into the sand, but not ever at the risk of hitting someone. The logical consequence should be for the pilot to elect the higher risk for himself before risking a person walking on the beach (unable to hear the airplane coming).

We do keep hitting people and houses with our amazing flying machines. Knowing that we can't change how the press will slaughter any such case, its up to us to break the habit. Its sad how the accident got ripped to shreds. My instructors hammered: "Don't try to save the airframe/ engine unless you are completely certain that no one else gets hurt."

Posted by: Jason Baker | July 11, 2015 10:26 AM    Report this comment

A Cub or Cessna 172 can definitely be landed in the water without flipping. The accident record is full of such examples. But sometimes they pitch pole anyway. From what data is available, this doesn't seem to have much bearing on egress and survival; people still get out of them.

The amphibian is a different case, I think. For one thing, the flip will almost always happen if the wheels are down. Second, it's probably going faster when the flip occurs so the energy state is higher. Last, doesn't the fact that airplane is atop those high float struts really act like a giant lever arm, smacking the thing into the water? Seems like it.

With noting that the California Super Cub flipped pretty energetically on the beach. That hadda hurt, but the pilot got out of it and it didn't burn.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | July 11, 2015 12:28 PM    Report this comment

Well, what is PR ? what is information ?
None aviation news resources have enough resources to check the information releases issued by aviation companies.
Nor AvWeb which I read with passion.
For instance who checked the Pipistrel assertion : the Alpha electro is a certified production aircraft ?
The Alpha Electro is not yet a production aircraft : none have been delivered to any customer.
I hope it will done soon.
The alpha Electro is not certified : they claim having received a French (and German) certification : they never did; they only received some "permit to fly" which are not at all certifications.
But who checked ? None of our aviation journalists, nevertheless such an assertion is only PR ....
Is Pipistrel really a small and poor aircraft market ? Not sure ! It is one of the global leaders in the LSA market.
Of course, they are (very) far from Airbus size ...
And we all love the fighting between the small and the big !
Last thing about Hugues Duvals "first flight" : (1) Hugues Duval is a very good (airline) pilot but also a showman when flying the Cricri ... and this is still PR ! and (2) two single seater Cricri have been modified with Electrical engines : one by Hugues Duval the other by Didier Esteyne (the Airbus pilot for the channel crossing flight) and the Didier's one have been developed with Airbus' support.
It is a small world !
Fly safe !

Posted by: Gilles Rosenberger | July 12, 2015 5:17 AM    Report this comment

Gilles, the "permit to fly" you refer to is found in S 12 of the LuftVZO for airplanes. It usually precedes the full fledged recognition of the aircraft's compliance with regulations in Germany and it most certainly is a major step in getting the aircraft fully certified. There may be restrictions or limitations, but for the most part the VVZ isn't issued unless a plane is in conformance with most, if not all of the regs.

I agree that there is a lot of PR in almost any sort of news we read, however, crossing the channel in a electric airplane is nothing but a PR event. As we know, airplanes do not care about what kind of terrain they fly over, the fact that its of importance is more symbolic and historical. Whoever does it first will be celebrated as a barnstormer, like in olden days.

I'd say Duvals effort deserves recognition, especially in light of preceding attempts by the big players to get others wiped off the game board. I guess its cool if Siemens admits that its motor is inherently UNSAFE to manage a few kilometers over water. Honesty always wins. If Siemens now argues that there are any other shady reasons, most will see a PR stunt having backfired.

EADS is now going through illegal intelligence gathering problems (according to flashing news over here today) having allegedly been subjected to foreign spying and espionage at the highest levels. Surprisingly, the Pipistrel story has garnered very very little attention over here, people just really don't care. Unfortunately, today's news are not WYSIWYG, more always comes out later. Too much fogging and too little truth on tap, to go around.

Posted by: Jason Baker | July 12, 2015 10:58 AM    Report this comment

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