The E-Planes of Le Bourget

By Bill Moore

Posted: 26 Jun 2011

1969 was a memorable year for the Paris Air Show. The very first Boeing 747 made its debut, along with the Concorde supersonic jetliner, and there taking photos of it all was a wet-behind-the-ears college senior cum journalist named Bill Moore.

I had gotten permission from the dean of Ambassador College, north of London, to take a day off of school and fly over to Paris. I convinced the college's lead photographer to loan me one of his professional cameras to shot photos for his archive. I don't recall much about the trip other than a friend giving me a ride into Watford on the back of his Norton motorcycle so I could catch the early train into London, and from there take a bus out to Heathrow. The flight over was on an Air France Caravel, lasting maybe 45 minutes.

On the way, I met a two British plane spotters who made a hobby to collecting the tail numbers of as many airplanes as they could spot. They helped me get from Orly Airport out to Le Bourget, site of the Air Show, and the airport where Lindbergh landed in 1927, the year my father was born. As I recall had a wonderful time, enthralled by it all, taking photos willy nilly -- probably none of which were usable -- and wandering among the many exhibits, while marveling at the size of the 747, then the biggest airliner in the world.

The 2011 Paris Air Show, which sadly I have to view from afar, also has its share of "firsts, " at least from EV World's perspective. It is the first time an entirely solar-powered airplane as been on exhibit and doing a flyby; and it is the first time a series hybrid aircraft has flow into the event. Also on hand is the world's smallest aircraft, also electrically powered, which serves as a test bed for the European aerospace giant EADS. The company also debuted two zero-emission concept aircraft: a hypersonic corporate jet powered by hydrogen and a ducted fan airline powered entirely by batteries.

The single-seat Solar Impulse has the wingspan of an Airbus, weighs as much as a compact car, and is propelled by four 10 hp motors and nearly 12,000 photovoltaic cells affixed atop its wings and horizontal stabilizer. It is the predecessor of a larger aircraft whose mission will be to fly around the world on sunlight alone. Built in Switzerland, it took 13 hours to fly to Brussels, it's first 'international' flight, and 16 hours from Brussels to Paris, a distance of less than 200 miles; average flying speed: 10mph. Weather and air traffic played a significant roll in the lengthy journey, but sunlight helped keep it in the air.

Siemens, EADS and Diamond Aircraft Industries collaborated on the DA36 E-Star, the first hybrid-electric airplane in the world. Using the airframe of a motor glider, it can carry two passengers at a cruise speed of 130 km/h (80 mph or 70 kits ). It's flight from Vienna to Paris should have taken around 6 hours or so. Its hybrid drive system uses a 70kW Siemens motor and a 30kW Wankel engine generator, offering, the companies claim, fuel savings up to 25%.

The tiny Cri-Cri has been around for several decades, but only in the last year has its twin gas engines been replaced by electric motors spinning a pair of counter-rotating propellors atop nose-mount pylons. It is stressed to do aerobatics and is giving six minute air shows during the event. EADS states that since its introduction last year, operational endurance per charge has increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. That's a 50% increase.

The EADS hydrogen-powered hypersonic corporate jet is more whimsy than real. Twin hydrogen fuel tanks consume most of the fuselage. I don't hold out a lot of hope of it ever rolling out of a hangar in this century.

Of far more intriguing interest is the VoltAir. It's a jetliner concept powered by twin counter-rotating props shrouded in a ducted fan in the tail of the aircraft. Twin V vertical stabilizers thrust up from the shroud. Buried in the cargo bay below the passenger cabin are battery pods that can be dropped and replaced after each flight. Rated at a very fictional 1000w/kg energy density (we're a full magnitude away from that with current battery technology), EADS officials think the VoltAir could be operational sometime after 2030, assuming advances in both battery and superconducting technology on which the aircraft's electric drive motor(s) is dependent.

Unlike the Boeing 747 and Concorde that were the divas of the 1969 show, all of these aircraft are only fledglings technologically. Three can fly now, but with significant limitations in range and performance. Still, 42 years after my first foray to Le Bourget, I find them as exciting as those jetliners of my faraway youth.

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