Airbus’ E-Fan technology demonstrator became the world’s first twin-engine electric plane taking off with its own power to successfully cross the English Channel, some 106 years after Louis Blériot’s epic flight.
The potential of electric aviation
At 11 a.m., 10 July 2015, on a calm, sunny summer morning, the Airbus Innovations E-Fan touched down in Calais to enter its name in the record books.
The all-electric plane became the first twin-engine electric plane taking off with its own power to negotiate the English Channel, more than 100 years after Louis Blériot first made the intrepid journey.
E-Fan's first flight above the sea
Travelling in the opposite direction to the pioneering Frenchman and powered by lithium-ion batteries, the E-Fan took off from Lydd on the English south coast, completing the 74 kilometre flight east to Calais, France, in around 37 minutes. Flown by test pilot Didier Esteyne, the all-electric plane weighs around 600 kilogrammes and travelled at an altitude of about 1,000 metres [3,500 feet].
While the E-Fan had already made more than 100 flights prior to cross-channel flight, preparations for this very special trip were extensive and included a dedicated test and verification programme put together by French flight authorities, Airbus and its partners.
“That is something which may not have been necessary 100 years ago, when Blériot’s flight was just a race to be first. But today, following rules and obtaining certifications is of crucial importance for the future of safe, reliable and certifiable electric flight,” explained Jean Botti, the former Airbus Chief Technical Officer who launched the E-Fan programme.
The 10th of July 2015 will now join the list of famous days in aviation history, and I’m sure Blériot would be proud of this achievement
While the E-Fan’s successful journey demonstrated the future possibilities of electric flight, it was also an homage to Louis Blériot, one of the all-time greats of aviation.
In 1909, the English Channel had already been crossed by balloon, but just six years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, few people expected someone to make the trip by plane. Indeed, the Daily Mail newspaper offered a £1,000 prize to the first person to make the 37km flight.
A passionate inventor and engineer, Blériot believed his Blériot XI monoplane was up to the task. On the morning of 25 July, the Frenchman set out from Calais, flying at 70 km/h, 70 metres above the water.
Like so many others in the aviation industry, Louis Blériot has been a hero and inspiration to me, and it gives me great pride that I am able to honour his legacy with the first ever electric-powered Channel crossing
Blériot overcame poor visibility and gusting winds to land close to Dover Castle. Almost overnight, he was a star and his record-breaking aircraft became the first to enter mass production, launching the French aviation industry. His company was based in Suresnes, near Paris, at the same site where part of the E-Fan team is now located.
Since its first flight in April 2014, the E-Fan team has constantly been working to improve the technology on-board. At the 2015 Paris Air Show in June, Airbus highlighted the continuous enhancements made to E-Fan in just over a year and a half, which have resulted in increased battery capacity, reduced weight and a new retractable landing gear.
These are highly valuable stepping stones on Airbus’s path towards electrical aviation, which would drastically reduce noise pollution and emissions. Following the flight, E-Fan’s transformation into the “Plus” configuration with hybrid propulsion is continuing the aircraft’s role as an important technological demonstrator that will help the company master technologies for more-electric aviation.