Airbus electric plane and rival fly across English Channel
Aerospace companies hoping to prove fuel-free aircraft have promise
A bid by aircraft giant Airbus to fly the first electric plane across the English Channel between Britain and France on Friday received a challenge when it emerged a stunt pilot had flown across and back in a similar aircraft, just hours before.
Amid fanfare, Airbus flew its E-fan plane from Lydd, England, to the French port of Calais, 74 kilometres away, on Friday morning. The plane operates exclusively on batteries and can reach top speeds of 220 km/h. Since there's no oil or water, the six-metre-long, 600-kilogram aircraft releases zero emissions.
Airbus initially claimed that their plane, piloted by Didier Esteyne, had become the first twin engine electric flight to cross the Channel.
But Hugues Duval, a French stunt pilot, emerged with a rival claim that he had flown from Calais to the British port of Dover and back just a few hours before on Thursday evening in a twin-engined, electric powered one seater Cri Cri plane.
Because he lacked authorization to take off from Calais, another fuel-driven plane towed his 100-kilogram Cricri for the start of the trip, he said. Then he flew autonomously back to Calais and landed safely, having covered a total distance of 52 km and reaching at top speed of 150 km/h.
Duval said his successful flight was a "relief" and an "important moment" after years of fine-tuning the plane and flying it over land.
Airbus initially queried his claim on the basis that his craft had been launched mid-air from a conventional aircraft, British media said.
Later, the company issued a statement to Reuters saying: "We applaud the intrepid aviator Hugues Duval for his flight in his Cri Cri! He plays in his own category."
Several companies in different countries are developing electric planes, in hopes of offering a fuel-free flight alternative for the future — and the battle to perform world "firsts" in electric planes is heating up as the technology becomes more durable.
Earlier this month, a solar-powered plane set the record for the longest non-stop solo flight as a Swiss aviator piloted it from Japan to Hawaii over five days.
Airbus's E-fan took its maiden voyage in March 2014, and has taken off 100 times since its latest flight at the Paris Air Show last month. Airbus aims to put it on the market in 2017, targeting sales at training facilities for entry-level pilots.
While the E-fan only seats two for now, the aircraft manufacturer is aiming bigger down the line. Chief technical officer Jean Botti said at the Paris Air Show last month, "Our objective here is to make a hybrid-electric hundred seater for the future," calling it an ambition Airbus could realize in the next 15 years.
With files from The Associated Press