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.