At the AOPA Summit last week I was there at the launch of an all-electric Skyhawk. The project, the brainchild of George Bye, takes a regular gas-engine powered 172 and replaces the engine with an electric motor powered by lithium ion batteries. The idea is to use the airplane for training flights. The cost of operation, even factoring in the batteries, would be far cheaper than conventional trainers. It’s a revolutionary paradigm.
When it was time for Q&A, we journalists almost immediately began asking questions related to how the differences in electric engines might affect the training process. Electric engines, for instance, won't have mixture controls. Will students who learn on electrics be restricted from flying on airplanes with conventional engines? Because electrics will, presumably, start up so easily, will students have to get additional training to show they know how to start a piston engine, like they do with a tailwheel endorsement today? How far will it go? Will manufacturers put a phony mixture control on the panel to simulate our old-fashioned engine management ways? In some ways, it seems kind of silly. After all, there’s no fuel/air mixture. In fact, there’s no fuel and there's no air. It’s all electrons. But teaching students how to manage such things makes sense, I guess. After all, most of them will be flying "real" Skyhawks eventually.
The problem is, where we go with this idea of training a pilot to fly something they’re not really in is limited only by our imaginations. Why don’t we teach, for instance, student pilots flying a conventional 100LL 172 to operate a turbine engine? We could put in mock condition and thrust levers, ground idle and beta prop controls. None of it would do anything, mind you, in a ship equipped with a Lycoming four-banger, but it would train people to fly turbines down the line.
It all comes down to what we see as the goal of our training, and that depends on who's doing the training and who's getting it. A man or woman seeking to become a personal transportation pilot has somewhat different needs than someone on the fast track toward the right seat in an RJ. Why should they receive the same training?
The answer, of course, is that there are dangers inherent in making our airplanes look or behave like something they’re not. As pilots, we should fly the thing we’re flying and not be engaged in a game of make-believe when we fly. That’s what simulators are for. For pilots prentending that they're flying something they're not really flying, there are safety risks in the present and down the line.
Still, I think that we’ve only seen the beginning of airplanes that can be tailored to behave like some other airplane. It would be smart, it seems to me, to stress to students flying such chameleons that in the real world of flying, pulling that mixture control all the way out really does make the engine stop.