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Sparks fly over Channel flights

Published 10/07/2015

Pilot Didier Estyene pilots the E-Fan ahead of his cross Channel attempt to Calais
Pilot Didier Estyene pilots the E-Fan ahead of his cross Channel attempt to Calais

A French pilot today claimed to have made aviation history with the first flight in a manned electric plane across the English Channel from land to land - but the stunt faced controversy following a claim to the record by a rival pilot.

More than 100 years after French aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot became the first person to fly across the Channel in a plane, Didier Esteyne flew in a battery-powered prototype.

But hours before he set off, another French pilot, Hugues Duval, claimed to have upstaged Esteyne by flying his Cri-Cri electric plane across the Channel yesterday.

Controversy broke out, with Esteyne's team downplaying Duval's claim to the title, saying he launched from another aircraft rather than taking off from land like their pilot. Later, they congratulated Duval on his effort.

Today's higher-profile flight by Esteyne in Airbus Group's E-Fan 1.0 plane was in the reverse direction of French aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot's landmark Channel crossing 106 years ago on July 25, 1909.

The twin-engine plane - whose batteries enable it to stay airborne for up to 50 minutes - flew 45 miles from Lydd Airport in Kent to Calais in 36 minutes, reaching speeds of 90mph.

A smiling Esteyne, 57, said afterwards: "Today I can tell you it was perfect - the weather was perfect, the plane went very well.

"All the team, all the crew, everything went very well, so it was perfect. I'm here with you because it was perfect."

Asked about Duval's effort to upstage him, Esteyne said: "I don't have to talk about Mr Duval. I don't care about him."

He added: "The most difficult part was during the climb because we had the safety part of the flight. It took about 14 minutes to be more secure."

Following his flight, Duval said he felt "relief" and added it was an "important moment" after years of developing the plane and flying it over land.

Airbus Group applauded Duval for his effort, with a spokesman saying: "We congratulate the intrepid aviator."

The two flights mirrored that carried out by Bleriot more than 100 years ago when he became the first person to fly across the Channel in a plane.

Final checks and preparations were carried out last night by Esteyne, including a 20-minute test flight around Lydd Airport shadowed by a helicopter.

Describing the experience of flying the aircraft, Esteyne said: "It is closer to a glider because there is less noise than an aeroplane. Also, there is no vibration at all. It's smooth and very quiet."

The two-seat E-Fan has a 31ft wing-span, is two metres in height, with a total engine power of 60 kiloWatt and it operates on a 120-cell lithium polymer battery system.

With no fuel burden, the plane, which made its maiden flight in March last year, can be landed, its batteries unplugged and fly again after having a spare set fitted.

The E-Fan 1.0 has undergone 100 flights, and the project has taken 18 months from paper to its first flight.

Simon Bradley, head of global innovation network at Airbus Group, believes large aircraft powered by electric are decades, rather than single-digit years, away from being introduced widely in the industry.

"I can say that we are probably building a part of aviation but not all of it," said Esteyne.

"We are not able to say now what will happen in five, eight or 10 years but for sure it is an interesting development."

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