Airbus thought it was about to make aviation history. When the company’s battery-powered E-Fan aircraft lifted into the air with barely a sound on a summer day in 2015, a cheer went up from those on the ground at Lydd airport in southern England. Just over a century after Louis Blériot made the world’s first aeroplane flight across the English Channel, an electrically-powered crossing was on its way into the record books.
Except, it was outsmarted. After hearing of the Airbus plan, a French stunt pilot had taken off in his own small aerobatic e-plane a few hours earlier and crossed the channel from the other direction. Aviation is on the brink of the biggest revolution since Frank Whittle invented the jet engine in 1937. After decades in which jets have been powered by fossil fuels, advances in materials, battery technology and electrical systems are holding out the promise of cleaner, cheaper commercial flight.
Yet in this revolution, the established players in the industry are not guaranteed to retain their positions. Three years after the first trial runs across the Channel, the biggest aerospace companies are racing to bring electrically-powered aircraft to the market — and to stave off competition from a new generation of would-be aircraft manufacturers.