The Electric Airplane

Quiet, smooth, dependable—shouldn’t we be flying these by now?

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“We’re using a lot of very inefficient, crappy technologies to waste the gas that we can get so cheap,” says Fishman. “Six-thousand-pound cars to move around people who weigh about 80 pounds. It seems normal to us. This is not the way we should be doing things.”

The irony of electric airplanes is that their economies are tiny. Since electric powerplants are confined, at least for the foreseeable future, to small, light, and slow airplanes that don’t require a lot of energy in the first place, the savings to be realized from using electricity—which is roughly equivalent to $1.50-a-gallon gasoline—is rather small (see “Miles per Kilowatt,” below) . Conventionally powered airplanes with the performance of electric ones use only one or two gallons of fuel an hour, so the difference in direct operating cost is negligible in comparison to the difference in initial outlay: for an airworthy gasoline engine, $100 per horsepower; for an electric powerplant, $400 or more per kilowatt. Greg Cole points out that in 10 years the price of gasoline will probably be “somewhere between bad and horrible.” Besides, the price of fuel isn’t everything; smoothness, quiet, reliability, and freedom from maintenance have value, as would the environmental benevolence of an airplane fueled entirely by locally harvested sunlight or wind.

Outside his hangar, Pete Buck and I survey the rows of tied-down airplanes, sailplanes, and sailplane trailers. Nobody is flying today, because there’s not enough air movement to keep a glider aloft. I reflect upon the dubious economics and ask him point-blank why anybody would buy an electric airplane.

“Stupidity,” he laughs. “It’s just like a hybrid car. You can’t justify a hybrid car economically. You never get the price differential back. Just pump gasoline—there’s nothing better!”

Obviously, he’s kidding. For Buck and Cole and Fishman and others like them, there’s more to it than just a bad bargain. It’s more like a love affair. And if they can fall in love with an idea like this, other people can too. There has to be a reason why, when I’m back in Los Angeles and driving home from the airport, it seems as if every other car I see is a Toyota Prius.

Peter Garrison has flown across the Pacific in a homemade single-engine airplane, but he is afraid of electricity.

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