This first appeared as a Comment in the 6 May issue of Flight International
One of the most intriguing highlights of the 2013 Paris air show was Airbus’s vision of a hybrid-electric airliner. With electric fan motors driven by batteries and gas turbine generators – and relying on advanced aerodynamics and cryogenically cooled cabling, to enable superconductivity and beat the heat that would otherwise doom a flying megawatt powerplant – the exotic E-Thrust was presented as a 2050s prospect.
Just a few years ago, far less exotic next-generation airliners were being talked about as 2020s machines. Now, with Airbus and Boeing both having opted to rework their existing narrowbodies as A320neo and 737 Max, the “next generation” has been pushed to the 2030s – making the 2050s shorthand for dream-land.
But far from letting E-Thrust gather dust on the nice ideas shelf, Airbus has wheeled it out again – and even refined it as a 90-seat regional transport. No dates are being attached to the project, but the company could not be more specific: E-Thrust is a project, not a dream.
Within three years, a marketable, all-electric two-seater will be flying – soon to be followed by the hybrid version that, scaled up, will become E-Thrust.
That scaling up is no simple matter, and Airbus admits it may be defeated by the technology. But to hear the near-silence of its prototype two-seater is to understand that airport noise may well be aviation’s most daunting environmental problem.