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Notes from Paris: F-WILE Beguiles and Intrigues

There are a lot of interesting aircraft displayed during the Paris Air Show every two years, but only one LSA caught my eye in 2015: the Airbus E-Fan technology demonstrator, designated experimental F-WILE. You can see it fly at the link here. Take the time to listen to the entire 7.5 minute audio (it’s okay if you don’t speak French, the British announcer repeats the narration in English halfway through). And turn up the sound. Listen. Air

What do you hear? Almost nothing behind the narration, not because they have manipulated the soundtrack. The E-Fan is practically silent. Its two 43 hp ducted fan motors barely hum as they push its all-composite airframe through its high speed and low speed passes at Le Bourget just a couple weeks ago.

The two-seat technology demonstrator proves that electric flight can solve some of Europe’s pressing issues with flight training, and perhaps one day, with commercial flight. The aircraft noise is non-existent, as is its emissions. It is phenomenally efficient, and once equipped with swappable power-pack solutions, it will meet its mission: becoming a viable alternative to expensive-to-run, aging training aircraft.

Beyond the obvious innovations lies the beguiling inner workings of the E-Fan, specifically its cockpit instrumentation. The E-Fan Connected Cockpit brings together advances in glass cockpit instrument technology with new iconology that makes it easier for pilots to interpret the information displayed. The power management, for example, pre-calculates the effect of flight conditions such as altitude, airspeed and terrain profile. The status of available electrical energy is displayed on a removable computer tablet, along with the e-aircraft’s planned flight path, as well as for alternates in the event of in-flight re-routing.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

The E-Fan instrument panel is yet one more innovation in the aircraft.

That removable tablet is another key innovation. It serves as the navigation and training display, providing information that supplements the aircraft’s fixed left-hand Primary Flight Display. Pilots can pre-plan the flight away from the aircraft and simply insert the tablet into its place on the panel to upload and interface the flight plan. And after the flight? The computer tablet serves as a highly interactive training device in the classroom, enabling review of the flight in detail. Energy management, flight times and maintenance details can also be reviewed, allowing for easy digital logging of all relevant aircraft conditions. Conceivably, with wifi, the tablet can simply upload all data to the company server as soon as it regains connectivity, on the ramp or in the hangar. Nice.

GA benefits from the E-Fan in more ways than you can imagine. For one, the conglomerate Airbus, one of the three largest aircraft manufacturers in the world, is behind the research and development. The E-Fan did not appear on a napkin at a bar one night out of the slightly soggy brain of some nameless visionary engineer. It is a key component of the E-Thrust concept study, Airbus Group’s on-going hybrid and electrical propulsion system research, which has seen the hybrid concept study for a full-scale helicopter, the successful development of a Cri-Cri ultralight modified as the world’s first four-engine all-electric aerobatic aircraft, the demonstration flights of a hybrid electric motor glider, the flight testing of a short-range mini-unmanned aerial vehicle with an advanced fuel cell as well as the concept study of a hybrid-electric propulsion system for this rotorcraft. That is why the technology took only three years to go from vapor-ware announcement to flying demonstrator. And now that Airbus declared at the Paris Air Show that it will manufacture the aircraft for the training and LSA market, we can expect to see E-Fans ready for purchase before the decade is out.

Who can afford this kind of advanced LSA? Hey, when you are considering a fleet of them, more entities than you’d think. Also, I’d imagine the terms will be generous in the beginning, as Airbus uses these small two-seaters to refine its concepts for upscaling to its commercial aircraft fleet.

Amy Laboda has been writing, editing and publishing print materials for more than 28 years on an international scale. From conception to design to production, Laboda helps businesses and associations communicate through various media with their clients, valued donors, or struggling students who aspire to earn scholarships and one day lead. An ATP-rated pilot with multiple flight instructor ratings, Laboda enjoys flying her two experimental aircraft and being active in the airpark community in which she lives.

13 Comments

  1. Sadly, it’s not an LSA in the US, because it uses electric motors. Only internal combustion engines are allowed in US LSA. Those motors use variable pitch fan blades – not allowed by US LSA rules, but hopefully when/if the rules are ever modified to allow electric motors they can also allow automatic propeller pitch adjustments (no pilot input required in flight). It also has retractable gear, another LSA no-no in the US, although crippling that feature is easy enough.

    More to the point of your article, electric fans big enough to move an airliner are going to make plenty of noise – not as much as jets, to be sure, not by a long way – but they won’t be whisper-quiet either.

    • Robert Humphreys

      July 1, 2015 at 7:26 pm

      This is why we need to keep writing to our representatives in Congress so we get the FAA to do what is best for the pilot population and not for the bureaucrats of the FAA.

      • I don’t want to get into a big debate, but from our own web site (I work for the FAA): The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the agency of the United States Department of Transportation responsible for the regulation and oversight of civil aviation within the U.S., as well as operation and development of the National Airspace System. Its primary mission is to ensure safety of civil aviation. Nowhere in there do you see “what is best for the pilot population”. The FAA is number one a SAFETY organization. The rules are to protect 1) people on the ground, 2) passengers on aircraft. We try and do that to the best of our ability AND encourage aviation. We have found enough bad things about Li batteries that they are now considering banning types of them from even being carried on aircraft. Without proper study, we don’t want to have a whole stream of aircraft out there that may be dangerous.

    • I remind you that the LSA category was meant to apply to really light (limit damage and # of injuries), slow (limit damage and injuries) and SIMPLE (read “safe”) aircraft, thus the no retractable (many accidents a year deal with RLG), no variable pitch props (complex endorsement). I work for the FAA (in a different capacity) and think these guidelines were pretty straightforward and logical. Just because the one cool plane out there (Airbus) doesn’t meet the rule, don’t fault the rule! They made those design choices knowing these rules. Probably to get an airplane to do the things they want, it just couldn’t fit in that category. I talked with an FAA LSA person and the ASTM standards they use do address electric propulsion but when the 787 had it’s lithium battery fires it kind of put the whole safety of airborne L-ion batteries into limbo so they were excluded for safety reasons. Until all that can be sorted out you probably won’t see them allowed. However, the rules allow for petitions for equivalent safety to rules so a manufacturer could apply (probably without using L-ion batteries) and may be able to get them to buy that. And there is the whole experimental category that can go and do this too.

  2. Everyone talks about zero emissions! However, as has been said in the past: “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Those batteries have to be charged from electricity. Where do you think that electricity comes from? About 2/3 of the US electricity comes from fossile fuels. So you use more battery devices, more fossil fuel is used. Now if you charged your plane from your own solar or wind generated electricity ONLY, then you can say “zero emissions”. That said, it’s still more environmentally friendly than traditional gas powered aircraft, and you get the benefit of less noise and easier to operate. It will still have a limitations and stigma like battery only cars have now, but I’m looking forward to battery and electric motor advances that will make this truly practical.

    • Michael Lewis

      July 1, 2015 at 7:09 pm

      Even solar panels and wind turbines take a LOT of energy to build, along with all the infrastructure…again fueled mostly by oil, gas and coal. So, these innovations still don’t get close to being Zero Emissions once you factor everything in…far from it. But, the other attributes of electric vehicles like noise, simplicity, etc. are a big plus

      • True, but with Solar/Wind/Geo/Hydro, they are typically (mostly) one time up-front costs ($$ and environmental cost) that you get WAY more energy return than the cost to make.

      • Robert Humphreys

        July 1, 2015 at 7:22 pm

        National Geo had an article several years ago that compared the emissions of different technologies and Nuclear was the Greenest followed by wind then Solar. Nuclear is actually officially considered a Green Energy in Canada. Here in Northern Illinois we get over 80% of our electricity from nuclear and the rest from wind and fossil. Electric cars and electric planes would be very green here.

    • But it removes the noise and emissions issue from the airport neighborhood!

    • All true, but it is a decision by society how much electricity will be fossil fuel. There is no free lunch, but some lunches are better than others. That being said, no disagreement with John at all.

  3. Interesting how the Europeans like the tandem landing gear with outriggers. Weight/drag reduction vs. conventional retractable tricycle gear? I also wonder how the efficiency of two small ducted fans compares to a single electric variable pitch prop, nose mounted. If you’re training airline pilots I guess the multi setup makes sense.

  4. Maybe Amy needs to stop being an Airbus airbag and write… Sonex demonstrated an acro capable Semi-LSA (LSA doesnt allow for electric motors) E-plane a while back. This isn’t something new. Both were on par for duration. What Airbus has is money Sonex doesn’t, and a different design. But both achieved the same results. Do your homework first.

    • The Zlin Savage Cub offered a removable Ipad panel at least 4 years ago. Does anyone think this thing will cost less than a Stemme?
      Curious how recent improvements in lithium cells allow Airbus to waste the advance not on range, payload, speed or takeoff performance, but on making it look rilly cool , and fans, which look like…..JETS!!
      If Airbus intends to sell this to the public, they gave marketing the power to significantly degrade performance in order to get buyers attention. Maybe this is what it takes for todays buyers. But this is obviously for airline training and sims do an excellent job these days. Superior, perhaps, with all the scenarios that can be cooked up.
      Maybe this is like Apple giving hardware to grade schoolers. Get them hooked on your UI philosophy early. This little airplane has nothing in common with an airliner except the panel.

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