Hailed as a key moment in aviation as British company’s Spirit of Innovation electric aircraft taxies out for first time ahead of world speed bid.
‘Shall we give it a go, then?” asks pilot Phill O’Dell as he and a small group of engineers quietly prepare to take a step towards making history at sleepy Gloucester airport. Their small, sleek and low-slung, silver-and-blue aircraft - named Spirit of Innovation - attracts envious looks from pilots of other planes that look dated by comparison as it taxies out on to the runway for the first time, beginning essential tests ahead of its first planned flight in a few weeks.
Shortly, Spirit of Innovation aims to claim the world air speed record for an electrically-powered aircraft, breaking through 300mph, almost 100mph faster than the current top speed held by a German manufacturer.
Unlike other conventional light aircraft, there was no loud engine cough or belch of smoke when Spirit of Innovation started up, only the quiet hum of the cooling system for its huge battery pack. “It’s really a flying propulsion system with an aircraft attached,” says Stjohn Youngman, managing director of Electroflight, a start-up which is working with industry giant Rolls-Royce on the Accel project which Spirit of Innovation is the centrepiece of.
It's only when O’Dell engages the propeller that the sound begins, whirring as it spins, rather than the roar of hydrocarbons being burnt combining with air being churned from conventional planes. While taking the record will be a significant achievement, Youngman says that Accel is not solely about speed.
“We’re taking the approach of sustainable aviation. We’re looking at the markets that electric aviation can serve, showing we have a proven, reliable system. Rolls has the experience in certification and testing to do that.”
Project Accel began three years ago, and both companies have benefited from it. Working with a start-up like Electroflight has given Rolls an insight into the culture of moving fast, while Electroflight has been able to tap vast resources and experience.
Claiming the record will set up both businesses as leaders in what the industry is increasingly seeing as the future, as environmental pressures build that make emissions-spewing engines unacceptable. Small vertical take-off and landing aircraft used like long-range taxis are starting to look increasingly realistic. Indeed, the first flying-car airport is scheduled to open in Coventry later this year.
With Rolls currently battling the downturn in aviation caused by the pandemic and slashing costs and jobs, investing in new technology might seem like a strange thing to do. However, the project has a relatively tiny budget of £6.4m, half of which is being funded by the state-backed Aerospace Technology Institute. By comparison, as a rule of thumb it takes about £1bn and 10 years to develop a new jet engine.
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