ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Editor’s Note: The Truly Electric Aircraft

By David Jensen | January 1, 2002
Send Feedback

We enter 2002 with bittersweet feelings. This is the year prior to the 100th anniversary of powered flight and the year after the worst 12 months in commercial aviation history. In our "Outlook" coverage in this issue, we make frequent reference to the tragedy inflicted by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. It was an event that neither the Wright brothers nor anyone–other than the terrorists–could have foreseen.

Sept. 11 and the declining economy have been devastating to the airline industry and have hurt new aircraft deliveries. The avionics industry has suffered, as well. However, we predict in our coverage (beginning on page 26) that the industry will still see growth in the near term–modest growth, perhaps, but growth nevertheless. Various factors support this prediction: new military aircraft, a healthy backlog of business aircraft orders and strong regional jet sales.

But probably the most important factor is the growing importance of new avionics technologies for air operations safety, efficiency and, now, security. Even if fewer aircraft are delivered, they probably will be equipped with more electronics than many aircraft delivered in years past. Note, for example, the private aircraft industry in which the technologically advanced Cirrus SR-20/22 and Lancair Columbia 300 are potential shining stars.

Looking beyond electronic systems, engineers have long dreamed of the all-electric aircraft. In past issues, we’ve covered technologies that would replace hydraulically powered flight control systems with hydaulic-plus-electric flight control architectures. However, recent announcement have revealed ambitious plans to produce a truly "electric aircraft."

Boeing announced on Nov. 27, 2001, its plans to use fuel cell technology to develop and test an electrically powered demonstrator aircraft. Work toward this goal is taking place at Boeing’s Research and Technology Center in Madrid, Spain. Engineers there plan to swap out the piston engine in a small plane and replace it with fuel cells and an electric motor. Test flights are scheduled to begin in early 2004.

No, Boeing isn’t planning to amplify this technology and use fuel cells to power its Sonic Cruiser or other proposed aircraft. "Our ultimate goal is to replace the auxiliary power unit," says Dave Daggett, who is part of the environmental performance strategy group working on the project. "But first, we’re going to learn more about fuel cells by powering a small airplane and, as the technology matures, use fuel cells to power aircraft electrical systems, such as the in-flight entertainment system."

There is a nonprofit organization that sees the electrically powered aircraft not as a means to an end but as the end itself. Those who attended last summer’s Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture show in Oshkosk, Wis., had the opportunity to view the world’s first piloted, fuel-cell-powered airplane. (Fuel cells have been used to power unmanned air vehicles for some time.) Developed by the Foundation for Advancing Science Education (FASTec), the Electric Plane, or E-Plane, is an all-carbon DynAero MCR-01 Lafayette, built and donated by American Ghiles Aircraft in France. The internal combustion engine in the two-seat aircraft was swapped for a 320-pound, 20-kWh SAFT lithium ion battery pack and electronic drive conversion.

The folks at FASTec, an organization dedicated to advancing science and technology in education, are serious about electrically powered flight. They established a three-phase development program. They plan to initially fly the E-Plane in June, with battery power sufficient for a 200-knot speed and 100-mile range. By phase three, in August 2004, FASTec plans to have an aircraft fitted with a more advanced, 50-kW hydrogen fuel cell system and a surge battery pack for a power boost in takeoffs and climbs. It is to have a 500-mile range.

James Dunn knows fuel cell technology won’t power large, air transport aircraft in the foreseeable future, but believes it could well power aircraft with 12 to 20 passengers. Dunn should know the technology’s capabilities. He’s FASTec’s managing director, an inventor, and president and founder of Worcester, Mass.-based Advanced Technology Products Inc. (ATP), a developer of hydrogen fuel cell technology.

Dunn describes an aircraft that, for safety, would have a 20-minute auxiliary power supply plus emergency power from a thermal battery like those installed in guided missiles. There would be plenty of power for the cockpit panel since the aircraft’s battery power discharges 700 to 800 amps. "We would use a DC-to-DC converter to regulate the power to the systems," says Dunn.

NASA has a keen interest in fuel cell propulsion and in late November 2001 awarded ATP a grant to study the feasibility of using hydrogen fuel cells to propel an electrically powered aircraft. Further evidence of the E-Plane team’s seriousness in developing a truly electric aircraft is the caliber of test pilots it has recruited: former astronaut Robert "Hoot" Gibson, aerobatics champion Wayne Handley, and Exxon "Flying Tiger" pilot Bruce Bohannon.

Being a non-profit organization, FASTec seeks sponsors for its E-Plane project. "We are looking for a sponsor from the avionics community–someone who might produce a panel for the aircraft," says a FASTec official.

The E-Plane appears to be a project worth pursuing. Fuel cell propulsion is environmentally friendly. It makes no noise and discharges no fossil fuel emissions. What better way to recognize 100 years of manned flight than by participating in a new and revolutionary aviation technology? More can be learned about FASTec and the E-Plane project on these Web sites: and

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox