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Article from TNU MAY 2024

ON TOUR: Back to the Future

Before we know it 100 years would have passed since Charles Lindbergh epic solo flight from Roosevelt Field New York to Le Bourget Paris in 33hr 30min.  And 67 years from the release of the James Stewart film ‘Spirit of St Lewis’, an epic in its own way.  We look forward to the centenary in May 2027.    

In 2002, Erik Lindbergh, an aviator, adventurer and artist, honoured the 75th anniversary of his grandfather's historic flight, retracing his solo transatlantic journey in a single-engined Lancair aircraft.  The journey raised over one million dollars for three charities, garnered half a billion media impressions for the X Prize (Sustainability) Foundation and jump-started the private Spaceflight industry.  

British Business & General Aviation Association (BBGA) was honoured to host him as a fitting guest speaker for its ‘Back to the Future’ annual conference theme.  Special thanks to Air Partner for sponsoring his trip from Seattle.  

Here are some highlights from his inspiring talk:

“My Grandfather Charles Lindbergh’s successful flight from New York to Paris in May 1927 electrified the world.  It ushered in a radical shift in the way the world perceived aviation and led to the golden era of aviation as we know it.  Before he flew across the Atlantic, people who flew on airplanes were seen as barnstormers, daredevils, even flying fools. After his flight they were pilots and passengers”.

In his keynote address Erik paid tribute to Raymond Orteig – the visionary American hotelier who pledged US$25,000 prize money for that flight.  Seven teams competed for the prize.  Conventional wisdom would have backed a multi-engined, multi-pilot aircraft entry.  “My Grandfather offered a single engine airplane – what would be an ambitious 33-hour flight.   Orteig only had to pay the winner, yet the competitors invested US$400,000 on research and development into long distance air travel. This was a 16x leverage on his money!”

Escape from Gravity

Erik thanked his own ‘sponsor’, newly retired orthopaedist Dr Bill Barrett who, on 27 December, replaced the pad in Erik’s knee. He put the original one in 27 years ago.  “Because of him, I’m here on this stage in London.   I've been mountain biking and skiing. My left knee is still going strong.   I hope to have many more years out of it – because of my continual determination to escape from gravity. I've been doing it all my life, flying, on skis, climbing mountains.   

“I’ve always had a physical sense of self.  Right since my school days growing up water-skiing on the back of a boat, as state champion gymnast; climbing and skiing Mount Rainier, in my backyard of Seattle.  But, at 21 years of age, Erik was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.”

By the time he was 30, he couldn’t walk and had to have double knee replacements.  During that ‘grounded’ time he turned to creativity, building furniture and crafting sculptures.  “This allowed my inner self to heal”.   Erik was commissioned to make a wooden sculpture of the Spirit of St Louis by two pilot brothers flying for FedEx in Atlanta.  Its authentic bird-like design represented advancing technology and preservation of the environment.  It was to be Erik’s epiphany.  

“Working on this, I wondered how my Grandfather felt making that flight, in such an unstable aircraft. And so, with my new knees and a second chance, I determined to recreate that flight.  In 2002, I flew a Lancair single engine, four-seat aircraft across the Atlantic from New York to Paris to mark the 75th anniversary and promote the future of space travel for the XPrize. A US$10 million prize to be awarded to the first privately funded spacecraft programme to go into space, return safely, and do it again, in a reusable, affordable craft”.

SpaceShipOne blasted off from Mojave Desert in 2004, flew into space, returned safely and did it again. That Ansari XPrize – won by designer Burt Rutan – launched the commercial spaceflight revolution, paved the way for Musk, Bezos and Sir Richard Branson’s thriving space launches today.  SpaceshipOne displays in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, alongside the Spirit of St. Louis.

Being passionate about decarbonising aviation, led to Erik co-founding VerdeGo in 2017.   Since that time the industry has exploded, he highlighted, with investment “going into crazy” eVTOL [electric vertical take-off and landing] designs.  Electric motors enable us to put thrust anywhere we want on an airframe, so we can take off like a helicopter, and fly with the efficiency of a wing with these new designs.

A lot of money has been flying into Urban Air Mobility, because people saw it as a disruptor. We saw how Uber changed the way we move around in cities and so forth.  

Advance Air Mobility industry will begin and grow powered by hybrid-electric aircraft because aircraft need power densities beyond what batteries alone can supply.

Hybridization, where VerdeGo is focusing, optimizes flight without recharging engines and battery issues, thermal runaway, and so forth. And if you add sustainable aviation fuel [SAF] you're reducing carbon output and starting to become sustainable.

Military applications are the first mover, stated Erik, because of the need to go into remote areas, and return without refuelling. “They don't have infrastructure, batteries or hydrogen in remote locations”.

Working with Erik at VerdeGo Aero are co-founders at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Dr Pat Anderson, who built the first hybrid electric propulsion system for the NASA greenflight challenge and Eric Bartsch, who helped him fly the first electric aircraft almost ten years ago.  

VerdeGo's IDEP (Integrated Distributed Electric Propulsion) systems are modular sets of components developed to enable a diverse array of VTOL airframe manufacturers to apply hybrid-electric powertrains to their aircraft.  It has funding and has won multiple government contracts, and commercial customers.  It started building an iron bird, the VH1, for testing and R&D, followed by the VH2, which is flying in a customer’s prototype aircraft. The company is focusing on commercializing the VH3-185, VH4 Turbine-Hybrid and VH5 blended turbofan, and making progress towards certification.

“My grandparents flew around the world charting routes in the late 1920s and 30s and stayed active in aviation right through to 1977, when my Grandfather died. Advancing technology enabled them to travel great distances and meet people in foreign cultures, enjoy incredible experiences.   They were mindful that such technology could harm our quality of life and wrote about the need for balance between advancing technology and preservation of the environment.  After my Grandfather died, Neil Armstrong and General Jimmy Doolittle founded the Lindbergh Foundation at the Explorers’ Club in New York, offering grants and awards for innovation.  This Foundation is 47 years old now.  It’s given US$3-plus million in grants, 50 plus awards, including electric aircraft awards to help get the industry moving, run programmes and education.  Its focus now is on decarbonising aviation and stimulating education for next generation aviators – ahead of the 100th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s flight. Erik didn’t go into detail about what he has planned for the 100th – but he hopes it will be ‘literal’ electric flying this time.  Establishing a home in St Louis is imminent.

The primary need for the aviation industry is more SAF because it is the quickest way to decarbonize most of our carbon emissions, especially in airline transport, but it's incredibly expensive and needs to scale.  So, using the prize philanthropy model, we think we can focus research and development on more efficient ways to create SAF, attract capital for more SAF plants, and smooth regulatory issues.  Many companies are leaning in and trying to figure this out, but we need every tool we can to stimulate these markets, and prizes are incredibly effective.

With sponsorship we can really scale up these Incentive Prizes.   Decarbonize aviation, and inspire kids through education,” said Erik, sharing a series of inspirational videos his Foundation helped coordinate.  “Thank you to Air Partner, who brought me here to talk about this”.

We need to tell this story far and wide, because aviation has a target on its back.  We have existential threats. And they're real. And if global warming is getting worse, then we may have to shut down. We need aviation, we need our environment, we need to survive, the planet is going to survive, whether or not it's habitable for humans and other creatures. So that's why I'm applying myself. And these education programmes for kids we are doing are so inspiring because they're the ones who are going to figure out the solutions that will get us through this so we have the freedom to fly, sustainably.  Aviation is one of the toughest industries to decarbonize but our Foundation is determined to play its part, with terrific support from NBAA, GAMA and important partners like the Prince Albert II Foundation.

When I flew across the Atlantic in 2002, one of our first sponsors was Universal Weather Aviation. It makes me incredibly proud to say that 20 years later, they helped us change the way the world thinks about the future of life and spaceflight. Thank you, Universal.”



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