Airbus’ Asterisked Record


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 Cubon 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 agoand 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.