Even as the federal government jump-starts electric cars with $2.4 billion in research funds, electric airplanes are getting held back. In fact, current Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit electric motors in light sport aircraft, a class of planes typically flown by less experienced pilots. The FAA decrees that LSAs be powered only by reciprocating engines, a measure intended to keep high-powered turbine engines out of the hands of novice sport pilots. This rule is now thwarting the sale of electric airplanes in the United States. "We're reluctant to introduce new technology on a less experienced pilot population," says the FAA's Steve Flanagan, who helped write the LSA rules. "We need to get some more flight experience with electric motors." That position is frustrating to Randall Fishman, an ultralight pilot who's currently developing an electric two-seat sport plane, the ElectraFlyer-X. The $65,000 kit plane is being designed to LSA specifications so it can quickly go into production if and when the FAA gives electric airplane motors the okay.
The plane uses a 100-volt 50-hp brushless permanent-magnet motor.
Flying for Fun
The all-composite light sport airplane has a top speed of 100 mph and can stay aloft 2 hours.
Four 3-kilowatt-hour air-cooled lithium-ion polymer battery packs can charge from a wall outlet.
The large, low-rpm propeller doesn't bother the pilot--or the neighbors.
Three More Electric Planes That Are Out Now
The Next-Gen Electric Plane
Aviation designers around the world are experimenting with novel electric-power designs. The Boeing Fuel Cell Demonstrator combines a proton exchange membrane fuel cell and lithium-ion battery to power its electric motor. In January French designers flew the Alatus electric glider for the first time and plan to sell it this year, taking advantage of their freedom from the rules that limit U.S. companies. Makers of the Sonex E-Flight, made in Wisconsin, hope data from their plane will help shape new FAA rules.