Electric English Channel Crossing: Who Was Really First?

Dueling press releases arrived in my email inbox at around the same time on Friday morning, one from Airbus claiming the E-Fan demonstrator had made history by becoming the first electric-powered airplane to cross the English Channel and another saying French pilot Hugues Duval had actually pulled off the same feat the night before in the electric Cri Cri E-Christaline.

It took Airbus all of about two minutes to begin crying foul, arguing that since Duval's airplane was dropped from another plane high over France his flight shouldn't count. Adding to the drama were claims last week by Pipistrel in Slovenia that Airbus pressured electric motor maker Siemens into pulling the plug on a planned crossing last Tuesday in the Pipistrel Alpha Electro.

So who was officially first? It's still too soon to say. Duval claims that the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and the Aeroclub de France will grant him recognition as being the first to cross the Channel in an electric airplane. We'll see. The official paperwork generally must be started weeks before any record attempt, and takeoffs and landings normally must be made at airports to count.

Either way it's a P.R. disaster for Airbus, which came off looking bad not once but twice. Who knows, maybe the one-two punch in the nose from Pipistrel and Duval will be just the sort of competitive fuel Airbus needs to put the E-Fan 2.0 and 4.0 models into production on the aggressive timeline it has announced. (You can read all about these projects in the July issue of Flying.)

As for the record flights, timed to roughly coincide with the July 1909 anniversary of Louis Blériot's famous crossing, the world will little note nor long remember who was really first. After all, in 2015 an English Channel crossing, even in an electric airplane, is no big deal. The Solar Impulse team just crossed half an ocean in an electric plane. In other words, nobody really cares about a 24-mile puddle jump.

The prospect of a world populated by electric airplanes we can go out and buy and fly? That is a huge deal. And for that reason, we say congratulations to all involved.

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