ON JULY 10, pilot Hugues Duval landed in Calais, France, after a flying over the English Channel and back again—in a tiny electric plane called the Cri-Cri.
Duval’s flight is reminiscent of one of the greatest moments in aviation history: the first crossing of the Channel by plane, in 1909. It’s also part of a larger movement, retracing the steps of the pioneers of flying, who shattered record after record in their rapidly evolving flying machines.
The past few weeks especially have made 2015 feel like a new golden age. Pilots are again stretching the boundaries of the possible, using machines in which a new beating heart, the electric propulsion system, is finally coming of age.
This new and still largely unregulated corner of aviation is where ambitious plane builders, brave pilots, and skyward dreamers gather to invent an age of aviation that doesn’t come at significant cost to the planet and our health.
Electric flight isn’t new—it can be traced to 1973 West Germany—but it’s not about to dominate the skies either. The energy density of today’s battery-powered aircraft is well short of what you get from gasoline, and the most advanced electric aircraft are dwarfed by their fuel-powered brethren in power, capacity, and speed.
There’s vast room for growth, however. Batteries and other components are finally becoming affordable and dependable enough to allow somewhat practical products. In recent years, this has become the most exciting field in aviation.
The past few months have been especially compelling. On June 25, the Elektra One Solar, a single-seat solar-powered electric, flew from Germany, to two Austrian airports, and back. While it didn’t set any records, it proved once again the feasibility of solar aviation with flights of two to three hours, spanning a couple of hundred miles at altitudes of over 10,000 feet.
On July 3, Solar Impulse, another solar-powered aircraft, landed in Hawaii after a 118-hour, 4,500-mile flight from Japan. Sadly, the epic ocean crossing also damaged to the plane’s batteries, so the plane’s round-the-world journey ison hold until April.
On July 4, the two-seat E-Genius, developed by the University of Stuttgart, flew from Germany to Milan, the first crossing of the Alps by a pure electric aircraft. Unsatisfied, the pilots recharged the batteries and flew back the same day. (Eric Raymond flew over the Alps in his solar-powered Sunseeker II back in 2009, a flight that mirrored a 1910 trip by French-Peruvian pilot Jorge Chávez.)
But the most exciting moment of the year has been Duval’s flight in the Cri-Cri, because it mirrors one of aviation’s canonical moments: the 1909 crossing of the English Channel by Frenchman Louis Blériot, who risked flying through bad weather to get there first (and win a hefty prize from The Daily Mail. A highly symbolic gap, the Channel signifies but one thing to any airplane builder: I trust my machine to carry me over frigid waters for about an hour.
And like the competitive days of old, Duval’s flight came with a dash of intrigue. You see, Airbus planned to cross the Channel in an electric plane first, using its twin-engine E-Fan. It has scheduled the flight, chosen the pilot, and settled on a route. Hours before the flight, Duval took off—snatching away the record and the glory.
The good news for Airbus is that its flight is more impressive. The E-Fan took off under its own power. The Cri-Cri, a single-seater converted to electric propulsion by France’s Electravia, was carried to altitude by a 1950s Broussard MH1521 flown by Duval’s father Yves. The Cri-Cri is capable of taking off on its own, but failed to receive flight clearance in time.
It’s even more complicated than that: It turns out Pipistrel, a popular light plane maker based in Slovenia, also wanted to make the crossing, on July 7. It postponed due to objections by Siemens, which produces its electric motors. In a statement, Pipistrel said Siemensprohibited the use of its motor for a flight over water.
According to an article from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Pipistrel USA distributor Michael Coates accused Siemens of doing so to allow Airbus, a business partner, to make the flight first.
In the flurry of global attention these two efforts attracted, it’s worth remembering that neither is actually the first Channel crossing by an electric aircraft: The sun-powered Solar Challenger had no storage batteries, but flew 163 miles from Paris to London, in 1981.
It was an astonishing technical achievement, but required a purpose designed aircraft, while the Cri-Cri and the Pipistrel are adaptations of production planes. The Solar Challenger was tested under battery power, but the batteries were later removed, and the plane flew its record flight only under sun power, taking more than five hours.
Nonetheless, these more recent flights represent an inflection point, where electricity starts to prove its viability in flight. It’s not that an electric plane survived the trip, but that three aircraft could have done the same, without any special support, and with energy to spare.
Just like the 20s and 30s marked the preamble to a fascinating era of faster and more capable machines—like jets—the early decades of this century will be scribbled down in history as aviation’s second beginning.
Those finicky combustion engines will be seen as an accident of history, the smell of oil nothing more than a nostalgic trigger, as we zip around the skies in our quiet planes.