Electric planes have finally taken off – but they won't get you far

·4-min read
The UK's first fully electric plane took to the skies above Norfolk, but its victory lap didn't last long - nabEl Consortium / SWNS
The UK's first fully electric plane took to the skies above Norfolk, but its victory lap didn't last long - nabEl Consortium / SWNS

When a one-person plane powered purely by electricity took to the skies above the village of Little Snoring, it was a remarkable achievement in British engineering.

The maiden voyage of the first all-electric light aircraft designed and built entirely in the UK could herald the beginning of a new homegrown zero-emissions aerospace manufacturing industry.

But its victory lap didn’t last long. The plane was up for just 33 minutes above the airfield in Norfolk, before it came back down for a recharge.

The all-electric microlight aeroplane could last up to 90 minutes on full charge “on paper”, according to Guy Gratton, an associate professor of aviation at Cranfield University, who piloted the Sherwood eKub.

The all-electric microlight aeroplane was in the air for just 33 minutes, before it came back down for a recharge - nabEl Consortium / SWNS
The all-electric microlight aeroplane was in the air for just 33 minutes, before it came back down for a recharge - nabEl Consortium / SWNS

The plane was manufactured by The Light Aircraft Company (TLAC), which sells small planes to mainly hobbyists around the world and built by a British-based consortium led by Mr Gratton from Cranfield.

It is a major achievement in the race to establish emission-free air travel which the UK Government has backed with its Jet Zero Council. But it is unlikely to be the answer to eliminate the guilt from your overseas holidays any time soon.

Likely to be limited to domestic flights

The size of batteries needed to go a significant distance means the technology is likely to be limited to very short-haul domestic flights, Mr Gratton said.

“Everybody who is knowledgeable is sceptical about what we can deliver,” he acknowledged. “They are right to be sceptical. What we’ve got is slower, lower performing, heavier and less capable than an aeroplane with a conventional engine.”

“If you want to hop between Scottish islands, for instance, I think that will happen reasonably quickly, perhaps within 10 years.

“But with the big jets going a long way, I can’t see this tech working. They simply need a higher energy density.”

Mr Gratton has now taken the Sherwood eKub on five flights around the airfield in Little Snoring, where TLAC, the last light aircraft manufacturer in the UK, is based.

Guy Gratton, has now taken the electric Sherwood eKub on five flights around the airfield in Little Snoring - nabEl Consortium / SWNS
Guy Gratton, has now taken the electric Sherwood eKub on five flights around the airfield in Little Snoring - nabEl Consortium / SWNS

“The first flight I was incredibly nervous despite all the ground tests and prep because there was so much we didn’t know,” he said. “By now I’m getting a lot more comfortable with it.”

The UK Government set up the Jet Zero Council in 2020 to support the development of low-carbon aviation, and has backed several projects including an aircraft built by Rolls Royce which last year completed its first 15-minute flight from MoD Boscombe Down.

Biofuels the answer to long-haul flights

The electric Sherwood eKub, which was also backed by the Government, joins other pure electric planes, including the Slovenian two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro, which recently became the first to be certified by the EU’s Aviation Safety Agency.

Others are working on hydrogen or hybrid models, which could use more traditional fuels as a backup for battery power.

American Airlines and Virgin Atlantic are among several airlines to be working on deals to run zero emission electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, which they say can replace traditional helicopters.

The single-seat electric aircraft was designed at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire
The single-seat electric aircraft was designed at Cranfield University in Bedfordshire

But Mr Gratton said "Jet Zero" technology is unlikely to be ready in time to meet the Government’s climate targets to be carbon neutral by 2050.

“I think with longer haul, the answer will be biofuels in the short or medium term. I’m not sure any of us know what the longer term looks like.”

Paul Hendry-Smith, the managing director of TLAC, says the use for the electric plane is likely to be niche.

“For the hobbyist, the leisure aviator, there is undoubtedly a market for it,” he said. “But I’m certainly not basing my entire company’s future business on the project.”

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