From the Beginning
It can be persuasively argued that the airplane’s primary purpose is to expediently convey humanity over long distances. Certainly, Wilbur and Orville’s contraption has scratched men’s itches to have fun, haul freight, and fight wars—but reeling in nautical miles at near-mach speeds remains the airplane’s raison d’être.
From the dawn of the age of powered flight, aircraft manufactures have understood that speed and range are the currencies in which their products are valued. In the 1950s, Lockheed’s L-1649 Starliner proved tremendous range would forgive modest speed. In 1964, the Lear-23 proved blazing speed would forgive limited range. As age and smoothness sold Scotch, so swiftness and stamina sold airplanes. Subsequent years saw the mantles of endurance and speed passed on. Bombardier’s Challenger 601-3AER pushed the range of business jets beyond four-thousand statute miles. Cessna’s Citation X dazzled with its .92 Mmo. In 2015, Gulfstream masterfully consolidated blistering speed and breathtaking endurance in its 5,300 NM, .925 Mach, G-500. Since then, Gulfstream’s 600 and 700 series have stretched the range of business aircraft to 7,500 NM. Among airliners the numbers are even more staggering. Boeing’s 777X claims a nonstop range of 8,730 NM at 0.7 Mach. That’s New York to Bangkok nonstop. Rejoice, Ye lovers of Thai food!
The preponderance of superlatives by which modern, turbine-engine aircraft are characterized belies the fact that man has been messing about in airplanes a mere 118-years. During that time, heroes like Blériot, Lindbergh, and Post urged fragile flying machines across continents, oceans, and finally the world. A generation later, Yeager broke the sound barrier, thereby setting the stage for Knight to reach Mach 6.7, and Armstrong to reach the moon. Ever farther, ever faster; that has been the mantra, the anthem, the hymn and the hosanna of men who’ve focused their bravery and brilliance skyward—until 2021.
Dateline: 14 July 2021
United Airlines, in a spasm of virtue-signaling and fiscal irresponsibility, invests $35 million in Swedish startup Heart Aerospace. What’s more, the airline agrees (conditionally) to buy one-hundred of Heart’s ES-19 electric aircraft.
And what an aircraft it is! Powered by wondrous engines about which Heart has released no meaningful data, the ES-19 will transport 19 passengers over distances as vast as 217 NM at a dizzying 180 knot cruise speed! This bold venture assures United a lock on the lucrative JFK–Teterboro, O’Hare–Gary, Tampa–St. Petersburg, and San Francisco–Vallejo markets.
Dateline: December 2020
Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda excoriates electric vehicles at the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association’s end-of-year press conference. Mr. Toyoda, grandson of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda, states EVs will ruin businesses, require massive investments, and emit even more carbon dioxide than combustion-engined vehicles. Mr. Toyoda goes on to say, “The current business model of the car industry is going to collapse. The more EVs we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets.”
And he’s right.
Res Ipsa Loquitur
The Thing Speaks for Itself
Electric vehicles are not powered by magic. The juice has to be generated, most often by burning fossil fuels—as wind and solar account for only 17% of the electricity generated in the U.S. Powering a nationwide fleet of electric cars would necessitate massive expansion of existing, electricity-generating infrastructure. The subsequent increase in the demand for coal, oil, and natural gas would be unprecedented. Electric vehicles won’t stop the burning of fossil fuels, they’ll merely change where we burn them.
Even if EVs were to become the norm, and even if they could be powered by clean—wind, solar, geothermal—electricity, the production and use of fossil fuels isn’t going away. Countless plastic and polymer products essential to modern life derive of petroleum. Humanity might make due with anodyne, impractical, high-cost/low-range electric cars, but it’ll never forfeit ink pens, iPhones, shoes, stereo-speakers, and latex underclothes.
from the Greek sarkasmos: “to strip the flesh from”
But who cares what the CEO of the world’s largest carmaker has to say about electric vehicles? This is an aviation forum. The fact that Toyota brought the Prius to market in 1997 and has, for 24-years, remained at the forefront of the electric propulsion game has no bearing on things aeronautical. Why be beaten down by Akio Toyoda‘s gloomy augury when boy entrepreneur and Heart Aerospace founder, Anders Forslund, points us future-ward with revelations the likes of:
“It is really like a jet engine or a turboprop jet engine, in power that is, but it’s all-electric.”
“In this space, you really have to make the unit economics work.”
Such bluster may impress the ignorant, but anyone who knows anything about airplanes and what makes them fly will see Mr. Forslund’s quotes for what they are—hollow, meretricious, double-talk. Notwithstanding a Ph.D. in Aerospace Product Development, a B.Sc. in Engineering Physics, and a dual M.Sc. in Astronautics and Space Engineering, Forslund’s true metier is speaking at great length about nothing in particular.
“We are not building a flying car – we are building a very conventional plane. It will be safe, efficient and reliable, and the only sort of innovative part of our plane is the electric propulsion system and we are working on making that as efficient as possible.”
Something Rotten in Gothenburg
An exhaustive search of Heart Aerospace’s website and promotional material turned up a conspicuous and concerning paucity of hard information. Vague descriptions and provocative allusions abound, but actual data pertaining to power-plant design and operation is abjectly nonexistent. One infers from mentions of fuel consumption that Heart is developing a hybrid engine, but for all I was able to determine, Anders and his minions might be winding rubber-bands in those nacelles.
Whether Forslund is selling progress or pipe-dreams remains to be seen. What can be stated with certainty is that the young Swede has persuaded eight airlines to write letters of intent equalling $1.3 billion for an airplane he cannot prove will work. Even if it does, predicted pilot shortages and the commensurate rise in pilot salaries stand to render 19-seat aircraft financially untenable.
Still, for sheer showmanship, Forslund is a tough act to follow. His adolescent verve and pseudo-technical patois have hoodwinked politicians, airlines, and eco-freaks alike. Not since Wile E. Coyote offered the Road Runner a plate of birdseed has so much been promised and so little delivered.
“What we see is that for short routes under 400km, and with the battery technology we have today, electric is by far the most cost-efficient. It’s the best use of energy because if you want to generate hydrogen you lose a lot of energy in that process.”
The airplane’s first one-hundred years were embodied by Lindbergh, Lovell, and Scobee. Who embodies its next hundred years has yet to be determined—but P.T. Barnum is emerging as the front-runner.
It is easy to see
Electric aircraft—like biofuel, COVID masks, and CNN—occasion the emergence of spin over substance. The concept of zero-emissions airplanes is ambitious, but tragically short-sighted. The petroleum not burned in jet engines will, instead, be burned to produce electricity. The greenhouse gasses not emitted by jet engines will, instead, be belched out, in far greater quantities, by coal-fired power-plants—which currently generate 37% of the world’s electricity. The notion of saving the environment by wholly replacing fossil fuels with electricity is tantamount to ending J-walking by mandating leg amputation; but as long as demagogues and dullards prioritize optics over outcomes, the flying public can look forward to trundling about in aircraft that have less range than the average moped, and obligate their flight-crews to declare “Minimum Fuel” when switching on the pitot heat.
Twentieth Century aviation took mankind to the moon. Twenty-First Century aviation promises to take him from Baltimore to Washington D.C. This humiliating retrograde, though touted by progressives as necessary and noble, speaks more to a failure of human understanding than a renewal of human conscientiousness.