Two French pilots have crossed the English Channel in fully electric planes in the past 24 hours, fighting for the ‘world’s first’ that could usher in the era of sustainable aviation.
Didier Esteyne, who flew from Kent to Calais yesterday on Airbus’s prototype two-seater E-Fan, had his record snatched by another Frenchman, Hugues Duval, who performed the feat just a few hours earlier with his home-built Cri-Cri electric plane.
However, Airbus wasn’t prepared to lose its ‘world’s first’ so soon and questioned Duval’s achievement, saying the stunt pilot launched from another aircraft rather than taking off from land.
Despite the controversy, the firm congratulated Duval, who flew in the opposite direction to Esteyne, mimicking the first ever crossing of the Channel by air, a feat performed by French aviation pioneer Louis Blériot in 1909.
"We congratulate the intrepid aviator," said Airbus’s spokesman about Duval, who described his achievement as ‘an important moment’.
E-Fan’s 74km flight from Lydd Airport in Kent to Calais took approximately 37 minutes, during which the 600kg plane travelled at an altitude of 1,000m.
"It is closer to a glider because there is less noise than an aeroplane. Also, there is no vibration at all. It's smooth and very quiet," Esteyne described his experience.
"The most difficult part was during the climb because we had the safety part of the flight. It took about 14 minutes to be more secure."
Airbus’s plane was shadowed by a helicopter throughout the journey
The two-metre-high E-Fan has a 9.5m wing-span and total engine power of 60kW. It is powered by a 120-cell lithium polymer battery system.
With no fuel burden, the plane - which made its maiden flight in March last year - can be landed, its batteries unplugged and fly again after having a spare set fitted.
The E-Fan 1.0 has undergone 100 flights and the project has taken 18 months from paper to its first flight.
The plane is hailed as a first step towards emission-free aviation, although Airbus has warned that it may take decades before the world sees air polluting planes replaced by clean electric ones on a larger scale.
"I can say that we are probably building a part of aviation, but not all of it," said Esteyne.
"We are not able to say now what will happen in five, eight or ten years, but for sure it is an interesting development."
Watch E-Fan's flight below: