The Airbus E-Fan prototype technology demonstrator successfully completed a trip across the English Channel yesterday, a major milestone for electrically-powered aircraft. But was the multinational manufacturer upset by an electric kit plane that crossed the channel just hours before?
According to The Independent, Airbus test pilot Didier Esteyne flew the experimental electric aircraft from Lydd airfield in Kent (on the south coast of the United Kingdom) to Calais in France. The 36-minute flight was uneventful, and Esteyne was welcomed as a hero by his Airbus colleagues upon landing on the continental side of the waterway.
However, roughly 15 hours prior to Esteyne’s safe passage from the UK to France, a man named Hughes Duval piloted his home-built, electrically-powered MC15E Cri-Cri across the same channel, also landing in Calais. The main difference between the two flights was that Duval’s aircraft was towed to altitude by a larger aircraft, as French authorities were reluctant to authorize his pioneering attempt due to safety concerns. After takeoff, Duval flew and landed under his own control.
Hughes Duval pilots his MC15E Cri-Cri “E-Cristaline” electric aircraft
Duval’s aircraft claims to hold the world speed record for electric aircraft, set in 2011, when he reached a top speed of 175 miles per hour. His MC15E Cri-Cri aircraft is affectionately known as the “E-Cristaline” and features twin Electravia motors (making a combined 70 horsepower) and E-Props propellers.
Hughes’ “E-Cristaline” carried to altitude atop a Max Holste MH-1521 Broussard in 2014
Being the first to cross the English channel has special significance in aviation. The original successful attempt occurred in 1909, when French aviator Louis Blériot flew the Blériot XI (a monoplane) across the waterway in 36.5 minutes. As a result, Blériot took orders for several copies of his aircraft, and the Daily Express proclaimed that, “Britain is no longer an island.”
Hughes’ “E-Cristaline” separating from Max Holste MH-1521 Broussard carrier aircraft in 2014
If you consider Hughes’ flight across the channel valid despite the fact that he benefitted from a substantial boost from the carrier aircraft, then his upset of Airbus is quite significant. Airbus was quick to offer praise for Hughes, stating that “All efforts in electric flying [help to] support our goal to advance electric and hybrid flight.” However, because Hughes didn’t take off from the ground, Airbus delineated their accomplishment from his by saying that Hughes “plays in his own category.”
Electric aircraft such as the Airbus E-Fan’s presumed successor are still years away from entering serial production, but crossing the English channel is more than just a publicity stunt. Demonstrating that the aircraft can safely operate across a major body of water such as the English Channel instills confidence in electric propulsion technology and affirms the investments that Airbus has made in the platform.
Didier Esteyne moments after landing in Calais, France in the Airbus E-Fan prototype
Photo credit: .gif top shot via embedded YouTube video, Hughes Duval in E-Cristaline in flight - Anubis2202/Wikicommons, E-Cristaline/Broussard tandem in flight - Don-vip/Wikicommons, Didier Esteyne after landing - Michel Spingler/AP
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