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Future of aviation showcased at Aero Friedrichshafen

In many senses, Aero Friedrichshafen represents the depth of the Europe-wide commitment to future aviation technology, pilot training, and the preservation of an ecologically friendly environment. If you want a glimpse of how general aviation could look in a few years, then Aero is the place to go.

Aero Friedrichshafen drew more international arrivals in 2023, as post-pandemic attendance ramped up. Photo by Josh Cochran.

Europe’s biggest convention focused solely on GA, held in Friedrichshafen, Germany, once again maintained its focus on both traditional designs and future trends.

Its 670 exhibitors represented a closure on the more populous pre-COVID days’ attendance records, and this year’s show attracted more international visitors, notably including a significant presence from Sweden. Of course, exhibitors from the United States continued their large presence: to name a few, Cirrus Aircraft, Textron eAviation, Piper Aircraft, Garmin, Boeing subsidiaries Jeppesen and Foreflight, as well as Gulfstream Aerospace, which displayed the new G500 (a first for Gulfstream, and the first large-cabin, global-range bizjet to visit Aero). But as you might expect, this convention has a distinctly European look and feel.

This manifests in several ways. Much more so than in the United States, European culture, industry, and daily life is marked by a pervasive concern about carbon and emissions reductions, sustainable fuel, and the technology that advances those goals. This concern is reflected in Aero’s dedication to tracking progress in alternative propulsion schemes. This year marks the tenth year that Aero dedicated exhibit halls to what it calls “e-flight expos.” There you’ll see current designs making use of battery-electric and hydrogen-powered airplanes—some of which are certified under certain European rules. This year’s e-flight expo had some 126 exhibitors.

Then there are the exhibits that represent prototype designs and pure research efforts. Technical universities in Germany and other European Union states sponsor programs that allow students to learn the science behind electric and hydrogen propulsion. One large exhibit area showed off the work of students at six different German educational institutions.

To be frank, electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft and the more ambitious hydrogen designs, plentiful at previous Aeros, seemed less well-represented this year. Instead, there were more conventional, winged aircraft using electric and hydrogen power.

Markus Fischer, a divisional board member for aeronautics at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), speaking at an Aero pre-show media day panel discussion, seemed to be addressing the challenges that the eVTOL movement faces when he reminded the audience of a well-worn saying in the aircraft manufacturing business: “You must never over-promise, then under-deliver on a design. This is the biggest danger in the development of all aircraft, and it’s especially true at times like these. It will kill the future of the new design, investors will leave, and the future of the industry will be at risk,” Fischer said, adding that he was “not an eVTOL person.”

Cate Brancart, manager of European operations and safety for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, emphasized the need for newer, more sophisticated training aircraft in the next two years, citing pilot shortages. Fischer’s DLR sponsors summer schools aimed at cultivating future engineers, another area where shortages are growing.

Claus Cordes, president of the German Aero Club, said that in addition to the club’s role in overseeing the standards for the ultralight class of airplanes in that nation, also talked about the pilot shortage. “Air sports can be a significant future talent source for both pilots and the aviation industry in general,” he said.

Time and space prevent me from a comprehensive review of the newer exhibits on hand this year, but here’s a look at a few examples of the works in progress.

Longtime exhibitor Elektra Solar GmbH designed the Elektra Trainer for flight instruction, though it can also be used to tow gliders. Photo by Josh Cochran. The H55 electric propulsion system was designed to power the Bristell B23 Energic, a two-seat trainer, and Piper Archer airplanes. Photo by Josh Cochran. The PAL-V Liberty, a car that unfolds into a gyrocopter, fit a theme of a show (and the European continent) seeking greater energy efficiency. Photo by Josh Cochran. The Turbotech TP-R90 turboprop mixes intake air with the heat of exhaust gases to reinject it into the combustion chamber and reduce fuel burn. Photo by Tom Horne. JMB Aircraft displayed the VL-3 Turbine. Photo by Josh Cochran.

Elektra Trainer. Run by Calin Gologan of Landsberg am Lech, Germany, Elektra Solar GmbH has been exhibiting at Aero Friedrichshafen since 2011, when Gologan's first design, the Elektra One electrically powered one-seater, went on display. Since then, the company has built its Elektra Two Solar, a two-seater with a 27-meter/88-foot wingspan with its surfaces covered by solar cells. Now there’s the two-seat Elektra Trainer with (according to specifications published on the website), a 14.5-meter wingspan (47.5 feet), a 50 kW Geiger Engineering electric motor, and a cruise speed of 65 knots. It has a glass cockpit, a single fuselage-mounted retractable landing gear, flaps, variable pitch propeller, and a maximum flight endurance of 2.5 hours. Though intended as a trainer, the airplane can also serve as a glider tug, and can come with a trailer bearing solar cells that can recharge the airplane’s battery. The Elektra Trainer is certified under German ultralight rules and sells, at current exchange rates, for about $220,000, plus $44,000 should you buy the trailer.

JMB VL-3 Turbine. JMB Aircraft, a Belgian-Czech Republic company, showed off its VL-3 Turbine, a two-seat, retractable-gear turbine airplane based on the Rotax-powered VL-3, to be certified under Slovakian ultralight rules. Like the piston version, it will be capable of 160 knots, powered by a French 160-shaft horsepower Turbotech TP-R90 turboprop engine. Unlike a Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop, Turbotech calls the TP-R90 a regenerative turbine. It uses a heat exchanger to mix intake air with the heat of exhaust gases to reinject it into the combustion chamber. The result is a fuel burn as low as 5 gph—and the ability to use avgas, Jet A, or 100UL fuel. The airplane will be certified as an ultralight, with a starting price around $275,000. Flight testing is now underway.

JMB also makes a series of Evolution, retractable-gear, Rotax-powered piston singles, and the PT6A-135A-powered Evolution Turbine (orginally the Lancair), but the new VL-3 Turbine marks a new direction for the company.

University students designed this hydrogen fuel cell powerplant for a Taifun motorglider. Photo by Tom Horne.

H55. Sion, Switzerland’s H55 Inc. is developing its H55 electric propulsion system for retrofit in the Bristell B23 Energic, a two-seat, electrically powered trainer, and Piper Archer airplanes. The system will have an energy density of 200 Wh/kg according to André Borschberg, founder of the Solar Impulse project, and pilot on that airplane’s around-the-world flight. The H55 is a spinoff of the Solar Impulse project. Market introduction is planned for 2024.

Taifun 17 H2. Students from the Technical University of Würzburg-Schweinfurt displayed their latest project, a hydrogen-powered motorglider derived from the Taifun line of aircraft. A ball containing 5 kilograms of hydrogen in the back seat works with humidified intake air and a hydrogen fuel cell to create a flow of hydrogen power that teams up with battery power for maximum power levels, and constantly recharge the battery. Excess water, created by the production of hydrogen power, is vented overboard.

Thomas A. Horne
Thomas A. Horne
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.
Topics: AERO Friedrichshafen

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