The first jet airliner was built in England. The “de Havilland Comet” was put into service in 1952, when the passenger jet age officially began. Today, 66 years later, we haven’t gotten out of that age yet. That is because jet engines are reliable and the only machines powerful enough to push huge wide-body aircraft through the skies at crazy speeds. Splendid.
But the coin has a flip side: Billions of tons of kerosene have been blown into the air. And even though jet engines for airliners, which are usually being built by Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric these days, have improved substantially since 1952, the pollution they are responsible for has not really decreased, because of the constantly increasing quantity of flights.
Mario Bakalov is a pilot with Lufthansa. He flies the largest passenger aircraft ever built, the Airbus A380, to Asia and North America all the time, and does not believe aviation will throw those jet engines overboard too soon.
“Just look at the development in the past 60 years. It has not really been that big. Just like back then, we fly using jet engines and kerosene”, Bakalov says. “I doubt this will change within the next 10 years.”
The jet engine has taken billions of passengers to domestic, continental and intercontinental destinations. It has taken hundreds of thousands of paying travelers from Charles de Gaulle or Heathrow to John F. Kennedy Airport in three and a half hours, when the Concorde burned even more kerosene per passenger than any other modern plane.
The jet engine propels the A380, which can transport 800 passengers, at least in theory, and the Boeing 747, which has flown people around the world since PanAm started using them in 1969. And it moves all workhorses we know, including the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737.
Everyone knows that blowing out kerosene clouds will have to stop. The question is not whether it will stop, but rather when. “If aircraft with electrical engines are being developed anytime soon, those will be attached to small private aircraft”, Captain Bakalov says. “And their range will be limited. I am sure, electrical engines will not be part of airline aviation in the next 10 to 15 years.”
But there are companies and agencies who are trying to jump-start the overdue revolution in aviation.
In 2008, NASA sponsored a 3-million-Dollar program for the development of a more economical passenger aircraft. What Aurora Flight Sciences, M.I.T. and Pratt & Whitney came up with, looked like two shrunk Airbus A320 bodies glued together.
The experimental aircraft Aurora D8 does have fuel-powered engines which were supposed to decrease kerosene consumption by 70 percent. But, because of the rather traditional wing concept, 49 percent is all this plane will save.
In 2027, the Aurora D8 might be flying for test purposes. A few years later, it could be carrying passengers. But does this concept go far enough? It does not involve electric engines, at least so far.
The company Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) just announced it had begun working on “green energy solutions for the future development of electrically powered aircraft, combining environmental benefits together with longer ranges and endurance and with significant fuel cost savings.” It is unknown how long their promotion department worked on this sentence.
IAI says it expects the demand for electrically powered aircraft “to reach hundreds of aircraft per year within the next decade, covering a range of sizes and mission profiles. The growing use of electric propulsion is expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs.”
At this stage, electrical power is reserved for very light aircraft, the Israeli company concedes. This includes unmanned drones, which IAI already builds for military and other purposes. So there is a lot of experience. Now IAI estimates that “as the technology continues to mature, the market will diversify also to short-range passenger airplanes and other configurations.”
“The aviation world is about to enter a new era of electric propulsion”, says Moshe Medina, Vice President of IAI Engineering and Development Group. “The significant improvement of electrical power sources for cellular communication and electric cars may prove to have a positive effect on the reliability and efficiency of the electrical power system.”
Medina and his company are definitely determined. At the same time he obviously knew why he used the word “may”. Because the revolution has not really started.
The two big passenger plane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, also have departments in which engineers experiment with new concepts. Once in a while, they release computer-generated pictures showing their idea of futuristic aircraft.
So far, the only revolution they implemented, has to do with weight and new materials used for the hull of their latest models. The Airbus A350 XWB and the Boeing 787, also known as “Dreamliner”, do save fuel as a result. To a certain extent, this also applies to the A380. Airbus spent billions to get its weight down.
Chances are, we will continue to blow out kerosene fumes while taking our trips to Caracas, Los Angeles, London, Warsaw, Adelaide and Beijing. Hopefully the electrical revolution in aviation will not take as long as the one in the car industry took.
In order to make it happen, the world probably needs the most determined entrepreneur ever, a mixture of Elon Musk and Richard Branson, on Red Bull and gallons of coffee.