Breaking the sound barrier

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.

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