Second Century

The start of the Second Century of flight

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While fortunately many companies are investing in building fully electric aircraft, there are still unanswered questions about their operational capabilities.

Manufacturers publish numbers about the projected range in a straight line. However, when an aircraft has a range of – for example – 700 kilometers, doesn't mean that there can be 700 kilometers between departure and arrival.

Fuel requirements are one of the main reasons for limiting the practical range. Even when there is no fuel on board.

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The word “autonomous” is increasingly making it's way into aviation vocabulary. Often in relation to drones or (e)VTOL aircraft with the capability to fly without a pilot on board. Thereby lowering the costs of operating these aircraft.

While lowering the operational costs is a popular argument for autonomous flying, it is not the one this article will discuss. When it comes to operational flexibility and the accessibility of airports in relation to Regional Air Mobility (RAM), autonomous technologies have other benefits as well.

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There is one development in sustainable aviation that keeps drawing my attention: electric seaplanes.

It’s probably because I have always learned not to keep anything electric close to the bathtub that this combination keeps surprising me. Fortunately, there is an increasing number of entrepreneurs that has been able to look past this childish experience and has started to develop fully electric seaplanes.

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The first ever certified electrical aircraft, the Pipistrel Velis Electro, has been flying commercially for over a year now. And I am lucky enough to say that I have been it for over a year as well.

Obviously, some things are different on that aircraft. Before you get in you'll probably see a charging connected to the nose. And after opening the hatch that would normally give you access to the oil dip stick, you'll see a hose with purple battery coolant. Once inside there are less buttons and the engine start checklist is much shorter than usual. Which also applies to the run up. You'll get from ramp to runway in no time.

These differences during the normal procedures make flying the aircraft easier and safer. A real improvement. However, the most interesting differences can be found in the emergency procedures section of the Pilot Operating Handbook (POH). This article will discuss the differences in emergency procedures between the electrical Velis and regular piston aircraft.

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When looking at the news and social media we can all see that aviation is changing. Fortunately. Manufacturers show fancy designs of what aircraft will look like in the future. With wings blended into the rest of the airframe and many small engines. Which are mostly electrical. Many with multiple vertical stabilizers instead of the singular that we are used to. Also airports will look different. They will be equipped with futuristic looking vertiports to facilitate the autonomously flying Urban Aerial Vehicles.

To facilitate all these visual changes, things that you cannot see need to change as well. For example the flight rules that all flying objects must follow. During the first century of flight Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) where created to safely facilitate the increase in air traffic and the operational possibilities of flying.

Now, on the brink of the second century of aviation, the existing rules of the air are not sufficient to facilitate future developments. To make new concepts like Regional Air Mobility (RAM) and Urban Air Mobility (UAM) work, we need a new concept for Air Traffic Management (ATM). Fortunately, the invisible world is about to change too.

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Many exciting developments in aviation are based on the concept of Regional Air Mobility (RAM). A potential market that creators of both battery electric and hydrogen electric aircraft are trying to conquer.

So, what is this new type of aviation?

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For a brief moment it looked like the oil crisis of the 1970s paved the way for electric aviation to emerge. In October 1973, the first ever electric aircraft took off in Austria. Managing to stay in the air for fourteen minutes.

But that was about it...

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At some point in time there will be more text here.

This page is about the future of aviation and the technologies and operating models that will shape this future. Developments often start by implementing these technologies on the smallest aircraft. The electrification of aviation began two years ago with the two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro. And the electric aircraft we will see in the coming decade will have a passenger capacity closer to the Pipistrel than to a 737.

The same goes for that other pillar of progress: digitization. The first fully autonomous flights are carried out by Cessna Caravans, and the next biggest challenge in Air Traffic Management will be integrating small unmanned vehicles into the airspace.

These developments show that something bigger is happening in aviation. We are closing down the first century of flight – a century that started a little over 100 years ago with the Wright Flyer taking off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the devastating First World War that proved to be an incubator for aviation, and Charles Lindbergh's first non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Daring to look ahead

At the beginning of the first century of flight, Kees Valkenstein wrote the book “De aeroplaan van m'nheer Vliegenthert” (roughly translated from Dutch: Mister Vliegenthert's Aeroplane). The story, published in 1910, is about an aircraft owner whose aircraft gets stolen, set in the year 2010 – yes, one hundred years into the future. It's amazing how the author dares to describe the long-term future of aviation only seven years after the first-ever aircraft took flight in North Carolina. Would you dare to predict that a recent invention will still be there in the next century?

Even though you can tell from the pictures that the author wasn't even close to what has been achieved a hundred years later, the fact that he was able to predict that aviation would still be there in 2010 is a remarkable achievement.

The turn of the century in aviation is marked by aircraft being able to fly for 17 hours, carrying hundreds of people across continents. Pick two random countries, and there is a good chance that you can travel from one to the other in less than 24 hours – an achievement no one could have predicted when Kees Valkenstein published his book.

However, the negative impact that aviation has on the environment is increasingly casting a shadow over these achievements. We are seeing more protesters and policymakers who want aviation to reduce its carbon footprint significantly. Even though aviation's worldwide relative carbon footprint is only 3%, the fact that other polluters, like the automotive industry, are rapidly electrifying will cause aviation's share to increase in the upcoming years. Aviation is moving in the right direction, but not at the required pace, and this will need to change.

Another issue that needs to change is that aviation operations are increasingly concentrated at large airport hubs. The gigantic mazes where travelers spend hours before they end up in the largest, noisiest, and most polluting aircraft. Nobody wants to travel via a hub, but people do it because it's often the cheapest option. And it is difficult to argue with decisions based on costs. However, it would be nice if we could reduce the time we spend at airports, diminishing the time we have to stand in line for security checks, hoping to board a cheap but delayed flight soon while eating an expensive sandwich.

A photo of the summit of the first century of flight

The first steps into a new era

Fortunately, the technologies that will enable these changes are already being developed, at the beginning of the second century of flight. Predicting what this second century will bring is probably just as hard as predicting in 1910 what the first century would bring. Nevertheless, aviation is aiming for a future with cleaner aircraft and less crowded airports.

The first steps in emission-free aviation have already been taken, while at the same time, ongoing developments in digitization are making flights available to more airports than ever before. This enables aviation operations to decentralize, allowing smaller airports to become more economically viable and large airports to become more breathable, with shorter lines and more on-time flights.

Since this newsletter has been covering these topics for a while now and will continue to do so in the future, I have decided to change the name to “The Second Century of Flight.” I am not going to predict what aviation will look like in 100 years' time, but I will guide you along the way.