Clean, quiet, sustainable flight

In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic, nearly a century later, his grandson is carrying on the family legacy of innovation. Reporter Andrea Vasquez spoke to Erik Lindbergh via Google hangout.


In May of 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo over the Atlantic.

Nearly a century later, his grandson is carrying on the family legacy of innovation.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez spoke to Erik Lindbergh via Google Hangout.

Erik Lindbergh, thanks very much for joining us.

My pleasure.

So, how does Powering Imagination and your company's mission -- it's taking a couple steps from where your grandfather, Charles Lindbergh, left off.

What are you trying to accomplish and why is it such a difficult task?

Aviation and just flight is difficult.

The energy that it takes to get you up in the air, even in an airplane -- the heavier you are, the more energy it takes -- the more energy, the more weight.

So it's a feedback loop that's really difficult to solve.

Gasoline has huge amounts of energy in it, so we've been able to use that since the Wright brothers started flying, and, of course my grandfather -- New York to Paris in 1927.

Batteries don't quite have the same energy density as gasoline, so that's why we're not seeing them flying regularly now.

But this technology promises to be clean and quiet and potentially renewable, and so we need to make that happen faster.

Because, its not -- Like you were saying, it's not only the weight and the noise, but it's the space that you're taking up.

One thing that is so hard to accomplish is just basically a vertical takeoff -- right? -- as opposed to those long landing strips.

How do you even engineer that?

I've been saying that the holy grail of flight or electric flight is sort of clean, quiet, vertical take off.

Now, if you look at drones flying, for example, you see quad copters and they're doing amazing aerobatics and carrying cameras and things.

If we can scale that up so that drones can carry humans, you'll be able to see and envision how we move around in the future.

How do you envision that future?

[ Laughs ] Well, I think -- I've been watching three or four development efforts with vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, so much like quad copters or drones or multiple propellers along the leading edge of an aircraft.

And what this does is it enables us to carry passengers vertically, translate horizontally some amount of distance, depending on the energy we can store in batteries, and then return to Earth.

And I think it will change the way we move around and lessen our dependence on the infrastructure of roads.

So you're really talking about for everyday use, potentially supplementing or replacing cars?

It's a difficult problem, though.

Because gasoline has so much energy, it enables us to fly, even in some cases, like helicopters, vertical takeoff -- translate, land -- but batteries, even though they're powering electric cars, don't have enough energy density, and aircraft are mass-constrained.

It means the amount of volume and space and weight that we can carry in an aircraft is limited.

Batteries aren't quite there yet.

The good news is that billions of dollars are being spent in research and development towards the energy density of batteries, so it's coming.

And when you're talking about energy density, basically they are heavier than gasoline and not providing as much energy as gas does for the same weight.

Just picture the battery in your car.

When it drains out and is all empty of it's energy, it's still weighs a ton.

[ Laughs ] And gasoline, when it burns out, it weighs a lot less.

So an airplane is actually a little bit faster, a little bit more efficient, when its running out of gas.

So is this effort and innovation, is this really being driven by outcry about sustainability and some of the environmental impacts and those issues, or is it more because the technology is now becoming available?

I became aware of electric propulsion for aircraft about nine years ago, and I thought that solved a lot of the problems that I was seeing in aviation -- fuel burn, leaded fuel, noise, renewable energy, Those are the threats that we're seeing in aviation, and one of the biggest threats is noise.

[ Engine roars ] If we can realize electric propulsion for flying in general aviation aircraft, just fixed-wing aircraft, that'll be great.

It'll help make it more pleasant to fly.

If we can start to realize vertical takeoff and landing, it'll shift the way we transport ourselves.

I've flown an electric airplane.

It was incredible.


It was quiet.

[ Engine hums ] I took off, and I was supposed to put it back down on the runway again, but I decided I was gonna take it around the pattern.

And so I turned to the guy standing on the taxiway while I was flying by, and said, 'I'm gonna go around,' instead of using my microphone, which I'm used to using.

It was that quiet.

When do you think we could reach this 'Jetson's-esque' future?

[ Laughs ] I think we could start to realize this clean, quiet future of flight in the next few years and it's going to start with small, limited-range aircraft.

It may end up being hybrid -- a combination of gas, turbine, and electric.

And I think, within 15 years, we'll start to see regional commuters flying.

Erik Lindbergh, thanks for joining us.

Thank you, Andrea.