Noise? What noise? Airbus is putting their money on electrical silence, with a new project called E-Fan. Yet this two-seater plane brings a lot more to the table, most of all a revolutionary pilot training program.
Owing to two electric engines of 32 kW each, the Airbus E-Fan is able to stay airborne for one hour. Nearly inaudible, the aircraft not only represents Airbus' entry into the world of training aircraft, it also forecasts a revolution in pilot training methods, becoming another rival to the Pipistrel Alpha Electro electric trainer, known as WATTsUP, in the category of light sport aircraft.
At less than half a ton, 167 kilograms of which are allotted to the lithium-ion batteries, the aircraft can reach a cruising speed of 250 km/h, thanks to the engines attached to the body behind the cockpit and the wings. This means that, at the one-hour mark, the aircraft will achieve its maximum distance when fully-charged. The foremost attribute here, however, will be educational. In keeping with classical aircrafts that carry fuel tanks in the wings, the batteries of the electric E-Fan are located in the wings which, at the span of 9.44 m, permit efficient cooling.
The Airbus creators — the European aircraft giant keeps up with the competition through their innovation and shorter turn-over in product development — are already thinking ahead. Considering a lightning fast development in energy storage, the current lithium-ion batteries, at an energy density of 207 Wh/kg, will be substituted with high-energy density batteries in the E-Fan series production, meaning higher total energy density and, subsequently, total collective battery capacity, which is 29 kWh in the currently operating prototype. Contrary to the E-Fan 2.0, the prototype is not a two-seater. Still it is technically close enough to the production version that it can be used for testing, ahead of production of the retail aircraft.
The test flights by the E-Fan demo model at the Paris Air Show — E-Fan made its first public flight in April, 2014 — have proven that the Airbus, which launched the E-Fan project in 2011 and unveiled the aircraft two years ago, in Paris, is serious about starting the expected series production and sale by the end of 2017 or beginning of 2018. In fact, E-Fan is just one stone in the mosaic of environmentally-friendly aviation, which the European Commission sees as a way to reduce carbon footprint. Airbus' plan, called "Flightpath 2050," anticipates — though nothing has been officially confirmed yet — the future production of a 100-seat electric passenger plane, expected no sooner than 2050.
Nevertheless, the E-Fan 2.0 two-seater trainer is intended to be followed by the E-Fan 4.0 four seat aircraft as early as in 2019, though no details have been released yet. Airbus has invested 20 million Euros in the E-Fan 2.0 project, which also encompasses the production of the first demo aircraft built of carbon fiber composites. This may seem a modest investment for a project that promises to establish new foundations in the world of aviation, but the findings propelled Airbus to develop both E-Fan versions, with production entrusted to its sister firm, Voltair SAS. E-Fan is much more than just another Airbus project: it is supported by the French Directorate of General Civil Aviation, which allows Airbus to attract numerous collaborators, from small to medium-sized companies to start-ups, all of which are technologically advanced.
E-Fan will be produced in a new factory near the city of Pau, in the Pyrenees. Financed by Airbus, the construction of the facilities will begin next year, and will be leased to Voltair once built. Interestingly, in order to draw the attention of future pilots and flight training schools, the designers of the E-Fan electric aircraft already introduced the specifics of the flight training program. Moreover, they also revealed that the digitally-run energy management system (e-FADEC) will take automatic command of all electric functions of the aircraft, enabling the pilot and the instructor to focus on flying. Almost without noise, emissions and, what has yet to be mentioned, fuel expenses. It is too early to speculate how that may affect the cost per flight hour. Still, might this forecast a time when affordability makes it so anyone will be able to fly?