Already Had My Electric Airplane, Thank You

32

The promise of a guilt-free flying machine in every pot seems to be, if not on hold, at least in the waiting room skimming back issues of Aviation Consumer while hoping for a callback. Might be a long wait. Still, I’m optimistic, and as Ludditely-inclined as I am, I would love to fly an electric airplane. Again.

In my misapplied youth I spent funds yet to be earned on a 1951 35C Bonanza, which the previous owner had named Marlene, for reasons unknown. A second mortgage later, the V-tailed Beech had elbowed my Champ to the back of the hangar. After one flight, I realized this was the best airplane I’d ever flown and pledged we would never part. Unable to afford the upkeep, we separated after three years of flying and repairing; more of the latter than the former.

The Bonanza was only partially electric. Its Continental E-205 engine could swill avgas with the best and easily stagger off a short runway with dignity intact. What she saw in me, I’ll never know and didn’t ask. There was nothing practical about me owning what was then a 40-year-old airplane that was complex in so many ways and yet elegant in response to suggestion. Knowing how good Bonanzas look in clean configuration, we’d slide into the pattern with gear and flaps up. Then, increasing bank and pitch to gently load the wings—without the coordination ball leaving the center of its race, something Marlene didn’t tolerate—airspeed slowed, and I’d click the piano-key gear switch, which was identical to others along the panel.

I know; checkride failure material. Gear doors opened, and wheels dropped and locked. An identical switch operated the electric flaps, and a knob-and-toggle assortment controlled electric propeller pitch—no hydraulics. Inevitably, what had begun with electricity in the air, one day failed with heartless indifference.

I’d departed a nearby airport for home and was distracted, wondering why the starter motor had cranked with less enthusiasm than usual. But it was nearing sunset, and I knew I’d be on the ground before I could figure that out or why the radio was hissing static. When I flipped the gear switch up, the legs unlocked and started to retract but quit halfway to the wells. Pressing the switch down, again, solved nothing. Similarly, the electric flaps and prop were unresponsive.

The 10-minute flight required another 30 to locate the owner’s manual, find and read the passage on emergency gear extension, then figure out which way to rotate the handle to crank the wheels down. Overall an awkward experience while flying an airplane that refused to speak to me; not that I’d been listening.

The battery was drained, something I should’ve noticed before takeoff, and the generator was comatose. Luckily, the fisheye mirror on the wing tip indicated gear down. Locked? Couldn’t tell, so I landed back home. Nothing buckled, and after a new battery and overhauled generator, Marlene and I agreed this relationship wasn’t working and parted ways. My one love affair with semi-electric flight was over, but now it makes me consider the unintended consequences in the rush to renounce avgas for electro-flight.

I’m leery of brash technological advances. Dial phones were fine, thank you. Beer cannot be light. But a plug-in airplane refueled by solar panels on my hangar roof is too intriguing to dismiss, simply because reality might intrude. Where money is to be made, obstacles will be bested. The downside in this honey-glazed future is the loss of aromas unique to the history of human flight, and I’m not referring to the lavs on Spirit Airlines. I’ll miss GA’s petro-scents, and a blood test might reveal how deeply such memories are embedded in my being.

 “Your cholesterol is normal, Mr. Burgie—”

“It’s pronounced … ”

“—but you’re off the chart on tetraethyl lead. Are you a pilot?”

Lead was ubiquitous when I was a kid. Our toothpaste extruded from lead tubes that, when empty, we’d melt in a ladle on the kitchen stove and pour into molds—purchased from an ad in Boy’s Life—to form Civil War toy soldiers. Lead paint coated our walls and was in our water, long before fluoride. Cars spewed bluish lead clouds that leached into our developing brains, shaving points off future GRE scores. But for airport kids, like me, there was more than the incidental ingestion of the periodic table’s 82nd element (Pb).

There was avgas; Kodachrome red, blue, or green (80, 100, 130 octane), misting heady ambrosia when expelled as bassoon’d vapors from a Merlin’s exhaust stacks. I loved to stand behind idling airplanes and inhale the essence of aviation, softening brain cells I might later need for … something … I forget ….

Anyhow, electric thrust will rob unborn generations of that experience. Just as they won’t experience shared cigarette smoke in a crowded pilot’s lounge, they’ll miss out on the shiver from avgas running down an arm while sampling a Cessna’s wing tank, a sample we then threw on the ground, like offering a libation to unseen av-deities. And consider that whiff of scorched oil dripping onto hot mufflers from rocker box gaskets that never seem to seal but are rationalized with, “They all do that.”

Will electric flight even use oil? I mean barrels of crankcase lubricant that slides virginal off a dipstick when new and later drains in a black expulsion at the annual. Will airshows survive in a post-avgas world? Picture rows of muscled warbirds with radial engines. Forgotten will be the labored cranking of starter motors to coax guttural belches of blue fog and orange flame from the recesses of combustion Hades where electric motors fear to tread.

Obviously, I can’t augur the future but boldly predict its approach. Not arriving tomorrow, but when it does, aviation’s future might not appear as imagined. Meanwhile, I’ll fly my ’46 Champ and fantasize about winged Teslas. Hey, it could happen. Face it, if E-Musk wanted a battery-powered aero ship, there would be fleets of them already darkening our souls. And, although I’d love to fly an all-electric airplane, I can’t say I’d be pleased if that were the only choice.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. My hydraulics instructor was fond of saying “electricity is the high priest of false security”. I too would love to regenerate by solar source whatever could power an electric version of what I fly now, but like you Paul, as much as they cost, I’d miss those primitive, agricultural sounds and smells. I don’t know how old you are Mr Burgie but my suspicion is that neither you nor I will have to worry about having to make the choice between electric or gas. And by the way, I agree that beer can’t be light. It also can’t be local craft. That’s what I call syrup.

  2. Eventually pilots flying piston aircraft will be like pilots flying taildraggers now. Some will respect the extra skill required, while many will be puzzled why people still bother with old technology when there is the magic of one switch, one handle, electric flight

    My goal is to be “that old guy” who insists on leaving his oil drooling radial engine antique on the ramp and covers all the shiny plastic electric airplanes with a smog of smoke on every start up !

  3. The problem with any power system, be it electric, internal combustion, hydraulic, rubber, is that it needs backups (a plane with everything powered electrics need dual buses, dual generators, and so on, while one where everything is hydraulic needs dual pumps, and so on.

    That’s what making hybrid-powered aircraft so interesting, and challenging. Why not have a diesel engine on one side and an electric motor on the other? Or in a push-pull arrangement, like a Cessna 337? Or have them powering the same propeller, via a differential, as many hybrid cars do?!

    Thrilling times ahead!

  4. Paraphrasing Mark Twain, rumours of electric airplanes’ birth have been greatly exaggerated. Quick quiz:
    which has more energy, a pound of TNT or a pound of gasoline?

    Purely battery-powered flight is not as easy as one might think, for one reason: energy storage. A battery must carry all its energy with it the moment it leaves the ground; at a 15:1 fuel:air ratio, a gasoline/JP-1 powered airplane only has to carry 1/16 the weight of its energy-producing reactants, pulling 15/16 from local air – the exhaust of which it dumps right back into the atmosphere and doesn’t have to carry, either. And those long-chain hydrocarbons produce a LOT of heat. If fuel cells ever get cheap – and have enough energy density, then you might be onto something. Note, however, that they will pull O2 out of the atmosphere and use it to “burn” the hydrogen, too – just like gas-burners.

    By the way, gasoline beats TNT – interestingly about 15:1. Think fuel/air bomb.

    • Yes but more than 50% of that gasoline energy is wasted in useless output like heat, friction, vibration, noise and pollution

      With a smaller electric motor 3 or 4 times smaller acting directly on the propeller shaft or turbine, we can achieve the same output as bigger gasoline engines.

      Paraphrasing Arthur Conan Doyle:
      The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observe.

      The airplane of the future will not look like what we are used to, so there is no point using analogy with the past.

      Airplane where you can only have one big ICE, will be able to have 4 small electric motors for departure and cruise with only one at height we never saw before and recharge the batteries by sun in cruise and regenerate them during our gliding descent. No carb heat, no mixture, no frozen fuel line, no CO.

      Quick quiz; how many people die because of pollution created by ICE cars, airplanes and fossile energy?
      Answer, 3 times more than COVID.

      • Isn’t it obvious that:
        In flying machines, power acting on a shaft is not a useful force yet. You still need to move big gas masses for propulsion and support. Add the associated penalties to the equation.
        Dumping exhaust makes the aircraft lighter so on average you carry only half of 1/16 (3.2%) of the stuff that burns with 50% efficiency.
        Completely self contained power sources are tricky to handle. The bigger the power density the less stable – more sensitive to heat and impact.

      • And a .22 round is more efficient than a .460 Weatherby, but it doesn’t contain the energy to kill the elephant. Efficiency is nice but not a deciding factor when you need to haul a couple hundred thousand pounds to FL350.

        Yes, you can make high-output electric motors. Also irrelevant if you don’t have the energy available to power them. We don’t. While it’s never smart to rule out anything, right now we seem to be bumping up against some physics limits with batteries. We are already using the lightest metal (lithium); there ain’t nothing lighter except helium and hydrogen; helium won’t play chemistry, and hydrogen pretty much has to be burned to get energy. That’s just one fundamental problem of many. Counting on battery advances sounds good; my surmise is that getting the required energy density will need some other method.

        re: new airplane designs. Sure, there will be some advances, but there is nothing to suggest that the airplane of the future will look much different – any more than birds will evolve for more efficient flight according to some yet-unnamed and undiscovered principle of flight, or that the basic physics of aircraft flight will change just because we want it to. Hope is not a strategy.

        • Well flying machines have already changed.
          We can’t predict what the future airplane will look like by analogy with the past.
          When I watch a teenager handling these drones without any training I can’t help being impressed.

          While they hold a drink in one hand and munch on fast food at the same time, they can fly like an airplane or a helicopter if they want and hover it in flight very precisely just by releasing the flight controls, bang without even thinking too hard, it goes to perfect wing level and precise altitude.
          When they have enough of it they just press the Home button and it returns to starting point precisely.

          I does take much imagination to think that soon someone will be inside these flying things and look like a pilot.

          Airline pilots of the past needed the equivalent of a doctorate in aeronautics to come to this level.

          You can’t achieve this level of precision with a huffing and puffing ICE (and probably wheezing too)

          At the moment batteries are the best means of accumulation of energy for mobility and maybe there will be something better in the future but until we get to the flying carpet nothing beats a battery.

  5. If you had to replace the piston engine, a microturbine hybrid would make more sense for an aircraft operation that needs to get any distance from an airport. Battery technology is still many decades away from being practical as a total replacement for liquid fuel / internal combustion engines for most manned operations beyond flight training. For a start, could we drag piston engine systems technology into the 21st century?

  6. While postulating about the wisdom of the new photo-ion exchange vector thrust nozzles…… I’m sure the future Paul Berge III will be writing about missing the smell of scorched varnish on copper windings and that time the lithium gas escaped the sealed enclosure and barely making it to the ground before the backup Hydrogen DiOxide generator ran through its meagre emergency fuel pack.

  7. I try to look past the emotion coddling and look at the whole picture. What are the energy inputs vs the outputs? Weight is the enemy of aircraft design and whacks mission profile. How can things be improved to the point of being practical? We are a long long way off and it will take more than and evolution of current technologies. It will take a revolutionary breakthrough. The weight vs. power vs. efficiency issues aside, I just can’t get past the environmental and human suffering carnage caused by mining battery metals. Not to mention the recurring replacement and land fill disposal requirements for said batteries. I am not an environmental activist by any stretch but there is a dirty and sordid story of deadly child labor in third-world cobalt mines behind every Tesla sold.

    • The battery energy density is improving and we are now around 250-300 kWh/kg.
      We can fly electric today (Pipistrel) but for an airplane to be comparable in range we need 400 kWh/kg to begin with and at 500 kWh/kg we say goodby to those flying machines as we know today.

      I just completed a project of converting an old diesel farm tractor Case430 to electric which arrived at home on the 24 dec 2020 with a nice big red ribbon.

      Maybe it is obvious to people that are in engineering but i was only an airline pilot before retirement.

      I learned a few Practical lessons about machinery.
      1. the intelligence is in the transmission and the hydraulic systems
      2. a motor is designed to do only ONE thing, that is, to turn an axis
      3. all a transmission and hydraulic systems need is a turning axis
      4. the clever work is done by the transmission and hydraulics and these people will always be needed with electric mobility
      5. a combustion engine is extremely inefficient and can barely be improved, that is why they are big and heavy, noisy and polluting.

      My old diesel engine was 34hp and I thought that to simply convert it mathematically to kW was all I needed to decide what electric motor to choose in other word a 25 kW.
      The person in charge of the conversion said don’t be silly it does not work like that, a 25 kW electric motor is far too powerful for my need and for what my Case430 could take. I learned that all I needed was a 9.8 kW electric (a forklift motor) which converts to 13.12 hp.
      I said, you mean the same hp than my little Kubota T1400 grass mower which has 13.5 hp (10 kW) and only weighs 500 lbs

      YES that is all I needed to move a 3175 lbs bare tractor + calcium in my tires + a bucket + utility blade + attachements on my PTO. More than 7 times heavier.

      Why because there is no energy loss with an electric motor, it is pure direct power to this axis.

      That is why Tesla is a world leader in electric mobility, and instead of peddling false info about the cobalt children, you should first take a look at where the cobalt goes first in industrial quantities, in the oil refineries to de-sulfur the petrol and for an industry like the fossil that is well known for not giving a damn about public health or environnement, do you seriously believe that they care about children.

      Your comments about batteries almost sounds like you could care about environment but you are attacking the wrong target, Tesla is the opposite of what you are saying

      New Tesla batteries have very little or no cobalt and Tesla recycled the old batteries to avoid digging more holes where it is law, in my case I am using an old Tesla S 2016 battery module for my electric tractor. Instead of dumping your old batteries in landfill you should use it for homemade Power Wall as more and more people do.

      Tell us what really happens behind every ICE car or airplane sold, don’t you think that it would be a billion times worse.

      Of course the sound of an aerobatic airplane using a radial engine is music for my ears but after owning 6 airplanes in the past, the next one CAN ONLY be electric.

      A solar energy spill is called a nice day, and it is full of vitamin D.

  8. “The promise of a >>guilt-free<< flying machine in every pot seems to be, if not on hold, at least in the waiting room skimming back issues of Aviation Consumer while hoping for a callback.”

    Guilt free. I fear that may be the more likely cause of the demise of our general aviation experience. I predict that government regulations/taxes, passed with the public’s encouragement, making flying general aviation aircraft fuel VERY expensive, is the more likely near-term future than a viable electric alternative.

  9. I started Knocker flying and airport loitering in the last ’50s. And yes, know so well the 3 colors of real aviation gas. But for my last 19 years of recent Aeronca Chief ownership, I fueled her with mogas. It ran great, never a problem. But what was truly missing was the smell of genuine real airplane gas. Mogas is a nasty smell. On the occasions where I had to fuel with the real stuff, even though it was only 100LL, when then firing up the A65, the wonderful smell of that aviation fuel brought to me a rush of wonderful memories all the way back to the ’50s.

  10. John K: >My hydraulics instructor was fond of saying “electricity is the high priest of false security”.< LOL – That's why I passed on both electric and hydraulic gear actuation for my homebuilt design and settled on a manual system a la Culver Cadet/Sindlinger Hurricane. AKA the Armstrong Method.

    Paul, I hear you re: Avgas aromas, both pre- and post-combustion. Nothing quite like it except maybe race gas from back in the day. The first time I took my daughter to OSH, age 4, we got a waft of exhaust from an airplane leaving a parking spot. She said "Ooooh! WHAT'S THAT SMELL?" with a huge smile on her face. Something about a universal appeal, that I can't quite put down to heredity.

    I'll be sold on electric airplanes when, if drained of power, I can hand prop it, fly to my destination, repeat process and fly home, and worry about charging later. Until then, electric airplanes are not for me.

  11. In my early days of flying (circa 1957-58) the FBO I worked for had one of those early “piano key” Bonanzas. The electric prop required the most finesse. The wing also had a weak spar, which came apart when a Forest Service fire spotter had rented the airplane for fire spotting.

  12. I must admit, I don’t really use a plane for travel anymore, at least the way i use too. I still like to fly even if it is just around the local area for an hour or two. If there was an electric plane that had folding wings and could be trailered easily, I’d buy it…. if the price was right.
    For a car, I would consider electric, only as a second car. I would likely drive the electric more, but I still want the ability to go somewhere further than walking distance.

  13. In addition to that emergency crank for the gear, we can expect to find one on the end of the crankshaft in case we run out of juice shore of our destination. Any Beech pilot who has ever cranked the gear down should be in good shape for this.

  14. Great story! The only way I can relate to this story is to imagine the heartache of being forced to say goodbye to a really pretty, talented, interesting and exciting girlfriend because she was a bit too expensive. It must have been painful. I don’t know if I could have let her go. I’d probably have gotten a second job or had to see a psychiatrist. Imagine owning both an Aeronca Champ and a Beech Bonanza at the same time and keeping them in the same hangar! This is every man’s dream!

  15. Nostalgia for messy stinky oil products reminds me of my grandfather’s missing hay and horse poop all over the streets. Electric isn’t yet ready for widespread aviation use, but I am ready to use it!

  16. The point lacking in all of the above is that batteries are only energy STORAGE facilities. The energy comes from the grid. At the rate of current and planed usage of electric automobiles, we will have no choice but to restart coal burning, in addition to natural gas burning, power plants. Not to mention the upcoming black outs at 7:00 PM when the entire neighborhood tries to recharge their Teslas, Chevy Bolts and Volts and eMustangs, etc simultaneously. Add in Mr. Daniel G’s tractor to the load.

    • re: power generation. You’re right on the money – batteries only store energy that has been produced somewhere else. I’ve lately been looking at thorium/molten salt reactor articles; just looks too good to be true. Surely there is something wrong or we’d have had these decades ago. My son tells me that China is building them as fast as they can turn them out. Anybody have more information?

      • The U.S. had a working thorium reactor back in the late ’50s/early ’60s. I believe Jack Kennedy shut down the project and the mothballed reactor still exists. We started using uranium instead of thorium because our technology for power generation evolved from military weapons development. The main reason being that you can’t make a bomb from thorium. Commercial scale uranium power plants then evolved from the technology to power the Navy’s nuclear subs and aircraft carriers.

        Our domestic stockpile of thorium is orders of magnitude greater than fissile uranium. It emits less radiation, the waste products have shorter half-lives, and the potential for a 3 Mile Island type meltdown is nonexistent. There is considerable R&D work going on with thorium power reactors, both here and in China as well as India. However, I am not aware that the Chinese have begun building any large-scale reactors yet.

        The main roadblock for any type of nuclear power generation comes from the environmental activists and the public who doesn’t understand that newer reactor designs are far more advanced and safer that those we currently use. Comparing a molten salt reactor to the water cooled reactors we currently rely on is like comparing a modern automobile to a Ford Model T. But, unless or until you can convince people that modern nuclear power is the only truly zero emission system we have that is powerful and reliable enough to support the future electric grid, new generators will be a non-starter. Wind and solar are great power sources and we need them, but we also need nuclear power to reach a zero carbon emission future.

    • An electric car at home is like any electric appliance in the house, it uses the same grid as your freezer and hospital appliances.

      My Tesla 3 uses less than 6% of my home consomption (based on 20,000km/yr) and I program the charging to take place after 1am while I am sleeping.
      This means that 94% of my electricity use is from something else.
      I doubt that if there is a black out at 7pm or anytime soon it would be because of VE. The freezers work 24/7 as far as I know and we don’t hear people stigmatizing the freezers or hospital appliances that save lives for using dirty electricity.
      And if dirty electricity is a problem what needs to be fixed, the supplier or the user? All the user needs is electric energy, not pollution.
      More and more energy comes from solar and wind to fill the grid reservoirs because it is much cheaper than fossile.
Let’s not forget that more and more people use their own solar panels and are off the grid
      and
      who wooda thunk it, it does not pollute the air we breathe.

      A solar energy spill is called a nice day, and it is full of vitamin D.

  17. re: power generation. You’re right on the money – batteries only store energy that has been produced somewhere else. I’ve lately been looking at thorium/molten salt reactor articles; just looks too good to be true. Surely there is something wrong or we’d have had these decades ago. My son tells me that China is building them as fast as they can turn them out. Anybody have more information?

  18. My impression is that the recent interest in small modular reactors is primarily driven by the need to first have in hand a vehicle to wean the public off their belief, ingrained through decades of relentless anti-nuclear propaganda, that any routine use of nuclear power will automatically guarantee the end of life on earth. Conceptually, if you can offer a nuclear power reactor intrinsically safe from runaway in the same way small lithium batteries are safe enough to carry in your pocket, you just might be able to convince a critical mass among the public of the fact they could accept & enjoy cheap, dependable, safe and unobtrusively produced electricity without rendering the world uninhabitable.

    The other big driver of this research is that by making reactors in a modular, standardized mass-producible form you would only have to battle through many of the regulatory barriers one time rather than over and over with each new plant. Power plants could be rapidly built, scaled to whatever size needed by adding already vetted & approved units, and would be safe to co-locate with facilities that could directly tap the heat they produce.

    That’s the general concept and certainly seems to be a logical, rational, scientifically based line of advance, so undoubtedly it will be crushed forthwith.

  19. Will these e-planes and e-helicopters start out as low cost experimental kit aircraft with the catch phrase *Batteries not included*? There’s an underground economy of battery builders fitting into this diy category. Tim Allen’s famous line – “More power!”

  20. Absolutely delightful article. You evoke the emotion of aviation. Emotion, especially in aviation, seems to be deemed as unnecessary fluff relegated to the nostalgia file. Electric flight is supposed to be vibration, noise free making it as visceral as using an iPhone or iPad. I never have become emotional about my cell phone or computer unless it does not work properly. Working properly means to me being able to make use of a fraction of its capability without getting a migraine during the learning curve. Most of my cell phone frustrations can be solved by the average 8 year old to thirty-something person who have grown up in a more and more of a non-visceral, emotionally distant world.

    I like Champs and Chiefs with their distinctive A-65/85 putt sound signature. Like wise, the loping idle of a an E-series Continental 185-205-225. I can identify a Champ/Chief/Cub/Luscombe just be its distinctive sound. Likewise, A Bonanza or Navion overhead and during take off with those 84-88 inch blades going through or close to the speed of sound…even if that take-off song can last only a minute. These airplanes are visceral, evoking emotions.

    I currently own a 1953 D-35 with a Continental E-225-8, complete with wobble pump, pressure carb, associated fuel system peculiarities, and the lovely but demanding Beech 215 electric prop complete with the Holy Grail of propeller propulsion called 88″ blades. Yeah, I get goose bumps when I listen to her idle and push the loud, Vernier twist-o-plunger for takeoff. And I m proud, like you, to say I have almost a “green” airplane. And itt does not contribute any lead to the atmosphere for most of my flying since that low compression, lopey idling Continental can happily use locally obtained, non-ethanol, auto fuel. Prop, gear, flaps…you betcha…all electric. It has been far more expensive than practical in maintenance and insurance for the hours a am currently flying it. But the entry price made the expenses really practical since it has cost me less to buy than a nice Champ or Cub. So far. But I have that same visceral feelings resulting in emotional response for particularly the Champ as my first flights were in a well worn CAP L-16. Once a got my PPL, I ended up getting my tailwheel endorsement in a Bellanca 7ECA Citabria…close enough in lineage to still get me jazzed.

    So, thank you for writing a story about your memories about your past affair with your Bo, and your never ending affair with your Champ. Quite a life filled with two affairs at the same time. At the end of the day, one provides more of a long term relationship over the other for a variety of reasons. But who can forget the machine that delivers emotions, with a visceral identity vs the sterility offered under the disguise of being “green” bantered around modern society when applied to alternative methods of transportation. I am not against new technology. But I can see a future that has lost emotions for much of anything because in our quest for being “green”. We eventually can and will build anything that insulates us from visceral feelings…making life as exciting and challenging like that of a vibration-less, silent electric motor. I am not ready for emotionless aerial transportation. For that matter, I am not ready for emotionless anything. I am nostalgic for any machine that can produce feelings, evoke emotions, and still perform their intended function.

  21. I built my own electric airplane. I took a Sonex Xenos motor glider and powered it with the drive of an electric motorcycle. The end result is actually quite wonderful. The future of e-flight is now, we just have to embrace it. Google “electric Sonex Xenos” if you want to learn more…

  22. We won’t see electric airplanes capable of carrying any substantial weight or with adequate range in our lifetimes. It’s a total pipe dream chased by delusional idiots. And I see a lot of those in this crowd.