General Aviation needs the equivalent of an X PRIZE for the design of a new, low cost, electric aircraft that cuts the cost of flying by 80%. Why? Many people are working to reverse the 30-year decline in the pilot population. AOPA is funding research into why student pilots drop out and SAFE is holding a Pilot Training Reform Symposium to investigate ways to make pilot training more effective while reducing the accident rate. The FAA has launched an initiative to reduce the general aviation accident rate, which they acknowledge has been static for the last decade.
Never have the stakes been so high nor has the industry been more motivated to face the systemic problems that threaten our future. But there’s still one key ingredient missing before lightning in a bottle can bring the industry back to life. We still need to make learning to fly more affordable by designing a training aircraft with much lower operating costs.
AOPA’s research says that time and money are not the reasons people drop out of flying. Technically they’re right; when you measure people who complete pilot training versus those who drop out, time and money don’t differentiate between the groups. However, time and money are the top two barriers perceived by BOTH groups. So yes, lowering the cost of flying will bring more people into aviation. And an electric airplane looks like the best way to get the revolutionary cost change needed; incrementally improving current technology can’t reduce cost enough.
History has shown that large cash prizes motivate teams to achieve great things. Charles Lindbergh was undoubtedly motivated by the $25,000 prize he won by becoming the first to fly alone, nonstop from New York to Paris in an aircraft. It also spurred on two other teams to cross the Atlantic within six weeks after his famous flight.
In 2004, Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE competition to build a privately funded craft that reached a sub-orbit of 100 km twice in two weeks with Spaceship One, pictured above. As a side benefit, that team’s work accelerated the development of private space tourism. More benefits are likely to come from the Google Lunar X PRIZE, a $30 million competition to send a robot to the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit video, images and data back to the Earth.
There are two efforts that are similar to what we need. The 2011 CAFE Green Flight Challenge will feature 13 teams competing this summer for $1.65 million in prizes. The teams must design and build aircraft that can fly 200 miles in less than two hours while using less than 1 gallon of gasoline per occupant. Team aircraft have chosen gasoline, bio-diesel, hydrogen, or electricity to propel their planes. CAFE’s 5th annual Electric Aircraft Symposium will be held in Santa Rosa, CA on April 29-30, 2011.
EAA has announced $60,000 in prizes for electric aircraft flights at AirVenture this summer. The competition includes three flights for: endurance, time-to-climb and maximum speed. EAA AirVenture 2011 will also host the second annual World Symposium on Electric Aircraft, on July 29-30.
All of these activities get us closer, but none may produce a new, innovative electric aircraft that slashes pilot training cost. To be effective, a general aviation X PRIZE needs to spur the development of an electric aircraft that is the functional equivalent of the venerable Cessna 152, or the more modern Cessna 162 SkyCatcher. Criteria should include:
- Two seats
- Speed of 100 knots
- Endurance of three hours with 30 minute reserve
- Recharging or battery switch time of 30 minutes
- Carry 400 pounds of pilot, passenger and baggage
- Costs less than $10/hour to operate for electricity
- Target production cost of $100,000
Some may argue that we need a plane with a lower acquisition cost, but I disagree. Flight schools have shown the ability to get $100,000 planes for their flight lines. But they’re having difficulty attracting clients when charging $100/hour and more. Think how many people would flock to aviation if it cost $10/hour to operate a plane.
$5 million is the right amount, since we’re not talking about going into space or to the moon. Key players like Sonex and Bye Energy have shown great resourcefulness to date in advancing the design of electric airplanes. Think how creative they and dozens of LSA manufacturers may become if a $5 million prize were offered.
With a prize in place, I’m guessing we can get a winning aircraft design in six to eight years and perhaps as little as 5 years, especially if the automotive industry’s investment in battery technology pays off. Do you agree this is a good idea? If so, where do we find the prize money?