Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


ELECTRIFICATION OF the automobile is a done deal, albeit not without challenges in its becoming dominant. But what about aircraft? Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits on electric-powered flight.

Background. I wondered about aircraft produced by the English Electric Company Limited. This firm was founded in 1918, an amalgamation of five British companies providing World War I munitions, armaments, and aeroplanes. Were any of the company’s aircraft electric-powered?

No, but English Electric aircraft were noteworthy in other ways.

The English Electric Wren, electric in name only. Image by Nigel Ish.

The English Electric Wren was constructed in the early 1920s to compete for a prize given to motorized gliders with gasoline engines of less than 750 cc. Only two Wrens were built back then.

Later, in 1957, a third Wren was built from parts of the second. It’s still airworthy today and flown occasionally as part of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire, England.

The English Electric Canberra, first flown in 1949, was a twin-engine jet that, throughout the 1950s, could fly higher than any other aircraft in the world. In 1957, it reached a record 70,310 ft. A total of 1352 Canberras were built in Britain, Australia, and the U.S.

The English Electric Canberra jet. Image by SAC A.K. Benson/MOD.

Really Electric. Model radio-controlled aircraft have had electric propulsion for years; its reduced noise and lack of exhaust residue are well recognized. Many drones are electric-powered. Full-size ultralight sailplanes exist. And an electric aircraft even completed a circumnavigation of the globe in 2016.

The Solar Impulse 2. As Alan Taylor noted in The Atlantic, July 26, 2016, “The journey took a very long time—505 days to fly 26,000 miles (42,000 km) at an average speed of about 45 mph (70 kph)—but pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg landed the Solar Impluse 2 aircraft in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, after flying around the world using only the power of the Sun.”

The Solar Impulse 2 flies over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, April 23, 2016. Image by Noah Berger/AP from The Atlantic.

Energy for the Solar Impulse 2’s four electric motors is supplied by more than 17,000 solar cells distributed over its 235-ft. carbon-fiber wingspan. Other superlight constructional features give this single-seat powered sailplane a maximum takeoff weight of only 4400 lb.

The Solar Impulse 2, as it appeared early in its flight testing in November 2014. Image by Pierre Albouy/Reuters from The Atlantic.

Tomorrow in Part 2, there’s another variation on the electric aircraft theme: Go vintage, short, and slow. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020

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