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Aviation History: Before its timeAviation History: Before its time

Pilot Briefing December 2019

Before its time

Electric technology outpaces certification

By Ian J. Twombly

Cars are going all-electric or hybrid. Boats are going electric. Solar panels adorn house after house across the nation’s suburbs. It seems like it’s time for aviation to see some electric innovation as well.

Decisions on which powerplant to use in a vehicle are driven more by economics or performance than environmental considerations, which is why aircraft manufacturers in the United States haven’t been enthusiastic about electric propulsion. While the motor technology has long been suitable, heavy batteries and relatively inexpensive avgas take away incentives for innovation.

That’s why it’s not surprising that the first practical all-electric airplane hailed from Europe. In a place where avgas is extremely expensive and noise a major concern, electric power can be more competitive. But Pipistrel’s Alpha Electro has proved that electric can be suitable everywhere.

Based on Pipistrel’s light sport Alpha trainer, the Electro is an all-electric two-seat training aircraft with an hour of endurance. The Alpha was created to fit under the light sport rules, and the Electro does as well, with one key exception—initial adoption of the LSA standards didn’t have a provision for electric propulsion.

The initial aircraft in the United States were given experimental exhibition certificates awaiting approval of an electric standard. Meanwhile, other manufacturers, such as Bye Aerospace, planned to go the route of a traditionally certificated aircraft, a path that presents its own problems.

Despite the certification hassles, the future of electric aircraft looks strong. Electric offers a lower operating cost, less noise, simpler operation, and many other advantages. Pipistrel recognized this early and became a pioneer in the process.

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Stories like this can be found in Freedom to Fly: AOPA and the History of General Aviation in America, published by AOPA on the occasion of its eightieth anniversary. Originally $39.95—buy it for the holidays for just $19.95—a discount of 50 percent off.


Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly is senior content producer for AOPA Media.

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