Two channel crossings have made history as individuals and companies in different countries work to develop electric planes as a fuel-free, noise-free, emissions-free flight alternative for the future.

Share story

CALAIS, France — With zero fanfare, an independent French pilot beat aeronautics giant Airbus by about 12 hours Friday in a race to fly the first electric plane across the English Channel, a symbolically important step toward making battery-powered flight viable in the long term.

Several people and companies in different countries are developing electric planes in hopes of offering a fuel-free, noise-free, emissions-free flight alternative for the future. So the battle to perform world “firsts” in electric planes is heating up as the technology becomes more durable.

European plane maker Airbus flew its E-Fan plane from Lydd, England, to the French port of Calais on Friday morning. The plane operates exclusively on batteries, and since there’s no oil or water, the 20-foot-long, 1,300-pound jet releases zero emissions.

Airbus had not figured on French pilot Hugues Duval, who had long dreamed of making that flight and knew that his two-engine, one-seat Cricri plane was ready to cross the Channel. So instead of letting Airbus grab all the glory Friday, he set out for a Calais airfield the day before.

“I was really motivated to go,” he said Friday, describing it as a family goal, to repeat a journey his father made across the Channel. “Our vocation (as pilots) is to take on challenges.”

Because he lacked authorization to take off from Calais, a larger, fuel-driven plane towed his 220-pound Cricri for the start of the trip, he said. Then he separated from the helper plane and flew to Dover and then back to Calais, landing safely.

Duval said he reached a speed of 90 mph on his 31-mile journey.

When he approached the Calais airfield again, he said: “The fact that you are flying over land is reassuring.”

Airbus officials gathered in Calais to celebrate the landing of the E-Fan would not comment on Duval’s trip. “I don’t have to talk about that. … We did something today, it is important for us,” said the pilot of the Airbus flight, Didier Esteyne.

The E-Fan took its maiden voyage in March 2014 and has taken off 100 times since its latest flight at the Paris Air Show last month. Airbus aims to put the two-seater on the market in 2017, targeting sales at training facilities for entry-level pilots.

“It’s a great victory, but it’s also a start. For us, it’s an adventure that permits us” to imagine commercial flights on electric or hybrid planes, Esteyne said. “It’s really the beginning of great innovations.”

The choice of flight path was not coincidental: In 1909, French pilot Louis Blériot was the first person to fly a plane across the English Channel.

Electric flight is a nascent sector of the aviation industry, so safety regulations are still in development.

Airbus and the French civil aviation authorities worked together to create a test-flight program for the jets.

While the E-fan only seats two for now, the aircraft manufacturer is aiming for more seats in the future.