Engineering The Electric Cessna 172
An electrical airplane just plain violates all the laws of aeronautical engineering. From the time of Orville and Wilbur Wright, aircraft designers and engineers have had a single quest: more thrust with less weight. Out of this dictum evolved better, more reliable engines, which in turn allowed the development of faster, safer aircraft. In just 24 years from that fateful December day at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Charles Lindbergh would fly solo across the Atlantic behind a Wright J-5 Whirlwind engine.
Now George Bye and company are determined to prove that electric motors and batteries are not only up to the job, but actually can do it better, in some respects, as he explains in this Skype video conference conducted Wednesday, November 3, 2010 from his office in Denver, Colorado.
Unlike other enthusiasts and entrepreneurs pursuing the quest for electric flight, Bye Aerospace and its sister company, Bye Energy, have set their sights on powering general aviation's most popular personal airplane: the ubiquitous Cessna 172, of which more than 43,000 have been built over the last half century. With aviation gas running close to $5 a gallon in the U.S., the once popular sport of flying is gradually dying on the vine. The average age of the general aviation fleet is now 38 years. Flying is expensive, not only because of the fuel they burn, but also the regular maintenance they require, especially the engines. Equipping the 172 with simpler, lower maintenance motor would help keep these costs down.
Bye's goal is to develop an FAA-certified electric propulsion system specifically for the Cessna 172. The plane would have the same general performance as the ICE-age version with its 300-400 pound, air-breathing, horizontally-opposed Continentals and Lycomings. The only difference would be the aircraft's endurance, which would be limited to two hours of flight before the batteries deplete. But as the former military flier and engineer points out, this is easily sufficient for flight training, which typically lasts a hour or so per session. While the instructor is debriefing the student, the fast charge-capable battery pack would be recharging, ready for the next student session. At least, that's the theory.
It's an intriguing idea that has merit, especially in the context of student training. The economic viability will, of course, depend on the progress in battery technology, both in terms of their energy-to-weight ratio, power density, durability and, yes, cost. But if all these factors can be balanced, electric aircraft propulsion systems may be just the spark the industry needs to recharge its fortunes.
The first Cessna 172 Skyhawk's average delivered price was $11,751. Today the R Model runs more than $300,000 and costs more than $100 a hour to operate.
The 172 started life as the 170 tail-dragger and has been in continuous production since 1956.
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