By Mark Bowen
5 Solar Impulse
Solar Impulse first flew from Switzerland to Morocco and then across the United States. It has the wingspan of a major airliner (about 63 meters), but its honeycomb-shaped, carbon-fiber-reinforced structure keeps the weight down to that of a small car (1600 kilograms). It flies at an average speed of 70 kilometers per hour, and it fears rain and winds that any student pilot in almost any plane could handle without too much worry. A new plane is being built in preparation for the real goal of Solar Impulse founders Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg: a round-the-world flight in the spring of 2015.
4 ANTARES 23E
With its 23-meter wing, the Antares 23E is the most advanced electric airplane money can buy. From a height of 1000 meters the Antares 23E can glide for 60 km. It’s one of the few production gliders equipped with a crash-proof cockpit, and it’s the world first electric aircraft to receive certification by any aviation authority. By using a better battery-charging process, its engineers managed to squeeze 500 extra meters of climb out of it, bringing the maximum altitude to 3500 meters on a single charge. This excellent piece of German engineering will set you back €205 000 (about US $260 000).
3 TAURUS ELECTRO G2
The Pipistrel Taurus G4 prototype, with its daring twin-fuselage design, won the prestigious 2011 Google Green Flight Challenge. Its commercial electric incarnation features a 40-kW engine and a Li-ion battery pack that lets it climb 2000 meters on a single charge. What’s more, it comes with a solar-panel-covered trailer that can recharge the batteries in 5 hours. The electric plane climbs faster and has a shorter takeoff run than does its petrol-powered version. As if this wasn’t enough, the enterprising Slovenian company has designed a highly streamlined new 4-seater called Panthera. Pipistrel plans to offer this sleek airplane in both hybrid and pure electric versions, with a 145-kW engine.
The Archaeopteryx is a carbon-fiber jewel, so light it can actually be worn like a hang glider, and you can take off from the top of a hill simply by jogging a few steps. With a ridiculously slow stall speed of 30 km/h, the Archaeopteryx can take advantage of minute amounts of rising air at low altitude, normally the domain of paragliders or hang gliders. But with the ability to glide 28 km after being dropped from an altitude of 1 km, it far outraces either of those flying machines. Now the Archaeopteryx is about to get even better, with the addition of a removable electric propulsion kit. But this isn’t a cheap machine. Without the propulsion system it’ll set you back more than €70 000 (about US $93 000).
1 CRI-CRI E-CRISTALINE/E-FAN
The Cri-Cri E-Cristaline became the world’s fastest electric aircraft in 2010, zinging about at 262 km/h, with Frenchman Hugues Duval flying. Duval went on to beat his own record the following year, bringing it to 283 km/h. That record was broken by Chip Yates in 2012, but it must be said that the limiting factor, as it happens, is the airframe’s maximum design speed of 290 km/h. The Cri-cri has a wingspan of just 4.9 meters and a paltry empty weight of 78 kg. Despite coming in an extremely small package, it packs a surprising punch: It’s fully aerobatic, and needless to say, it doesn’t take up much space in the hangar.