Pipistrel, a small, but scrappy light airplane manufacturer from Slovenia with its own battery-powered bona fides had plans, via its French distributor, for a Channel crossing on the now-past 7th of July. After eight months of preparations, its two-seat Alpha Electro trainer was scheduled to not only fly from France to England, but also make the return flight on a single charge. After what some believe was some behind-the-scenes shenanigans, though, it was scrubbed.
Just two days before the flight was to take place, Siemens, a Pipistrel strategic partner and supplier of the plane's motor, issued a seemingly extraordinary demand that its Dynadyn 80-kW unit not be used in the history-making attempt, and returned immediately. According to a letter addressed to general manager Ivo Boscarol (embedded below), the German company claimed that its consent was required for any flight, and, more specifically, the use of that particular motor over water violated its usage agreement.
Now, we are neither electrical engineers nor aviation experts, but it strikes us as odd that an electric motor might function differently depending on the terrain beneath the craft it sits within, but that, indeed, does seem to be the argument that is being made here. The situation also strikes Michael Coates, a top distributor of the company's aircraft, as bizarre, and he is quick to point a finger of blame at another Siemens partner: Airbus.
In a letter sent to AutoblogGreen (which you can read in full below), Coates calls out the huge European aircraft manufacturer, accusing it of pressuring Siemens to make the sudden contract termination, calling its alleged behavior "straight out bad sportsmanship from a company with very deep pockets and a desire to be first, first, first at any cost."
For its part, Pipistrel has avoided any third-party accusations. Boscarol issued a statement regarding the situation (also in full below) which denies any mention of over-water flight prohibitions in its contract with Siemens. He says, that despite the "bizarre and incomprehensible" decision, the endeavor was cancelled and the Alpha Electro brought to where it could be inspected by a Siemens official. Arrangements have been made for the removal and return of the motor.
We reached out to Siemens to respond to the situation and allegations of pressure and received the following response: "We always liked to drive forward the development of the electrical flying with Pipistrel and did that proactively. In spite of all commitment Siemens would never pull its own safety demands aside. There was no agreement upon the realization of the flight between Pipistrel and Siemens."
We also reached out to Airbus, but it has not responded.
Despite the controversy, we look forward to the E-Fan channel crossing. If you'd like to follow this electric plane as it makes history, a live stream will be available here. The event is scheduled to begin at 5:15 AM, Eastern time.
Dear Sirs, today, the seventh day of July 2015 could have been a very historic day for world aviation with Slovenian light aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel planning to be the first aircraft powered with an electric motor to cross the English Channel in both directions without recharging. This achievement would cement the very real practicality of electric aircraft flight.
It pains me to write this email to you but I am so disappointed by the bad sportsmanship displayed by Siemens and Airbus that I have no other alternative than to let you know what is happening behind the scenes to stop the Pipistrel's French dealer Finesse Max's historic attempt and aviation adventure.
As you may be aware, the Pipistrel ALPHA Electro aircraft has been in development for more than two years with the aircraft recently receiving certification and is available for sale to aviation markets around the world. The Pipistrel ALPHA Electro is more than a proof of concept aircraft it is an aircraft that has proven already to be the first, real, practical training aircraft in the market and Pipistrel has already received a number of orders from our first excited customers.
The plan today was to make the English Channel flight after the French Pipistrel dealer obtained all the permits and demonstrated the aircraft endurance to the French authorities by testing in France. The Pipistrel ALPHA Electro flew the same course distance overland demonstrating the endurance to cross the English Channel in both directions. Our testing overland demonstrated that we can take off from France, land in England and return to France and still have a remaining 25% battery capacity which validated the safety of this event
It is unfortunate that Airbus managed to flex their muscle with Siemens who are supplying motors to Pipistrel and have the Pipistrel motor agreement immediately terminated. Airbus managed to have this longstanding agreement terminated within hours of finding out about Pipistrel's cross channel plans which had been months in the planning. Siemens in turn requested the immediate seizure of the engine before the channel crossing attempt could be attempted by Pipistrel. It is also interesting to note that whilst the air bus E-Fan project does not use Siemens motors it does have Siemens stickers over the side of their aircraft and it also disturbs me that I have now found out it's the intention of Airbus to fly the E-Fan over the English Channel on Friday making Airbus the first electric powered aircraft to cross the English Channel and receive the notoriety and recognition that comes from this achievement and its important to note, they are only going one way and not a return trip on the same charge!
Obviously this backhanded attempt by Airbus to pressure Siemens to immediately withdraw the engine agreement and stop the Pipistrel attempt can only be seen globally as very bad sportsmanship. It has been mentioned to the Pipistrel dealer in France that Airbus have already invested 500,000 Euro in the Friday event and they cannot take the risk that any other company could be the first and this is why they flexed their muscle with Siemens.
It seems the agreement between Pipistrel and Siemens for using their electric motors in the Pipistrel ALPHA Electro aircraft has been squashed by an aviation giant which in my opinion is straight out bad sportsmanship from a company with very deep pockets and a desire to be first, first, first at any cost. I also feel extremely disappointed for the Pipistrel French distributor and his team who have invested many months preparation into this event only to be hobbled at the very last moment.
Official statement of Ivo Boscarol, Pipistrel general manager, regarding the planned attempt of the Pipistrel French distributor Finesse Max, to fly electric across the English Channel:
"Flying across the English Channel is probably the last challenge left to conquer in the field of flying with electric aircraft. Electric aircraft are at the moment approximately equally efficient as the petrol-engine aircraft were 106 years ago when Louis Bleriot first crossed the Channel by aircraft. So despite all the achievements of other electric aircraft such as Solar Impulse, the flight over the Channel is still a worthy achievement.
Pipistrel has been preparing for this feat since last October, especially when it came to obtaining authorizations to fly an electric aircraft in France and in England. The French authorities finally issued the permit last week, so our French distributor seized the opportunity and immediately prepared all the logistics to carry out the flight, which was meant to happen on the morning of 7. July at 10 am.
On Sunday 5. July in the afternoon we received by mail a letter signed by Dr. Frank Anton, head of e-Aircraft at Siemens, and by Mr. Tim Grage, Commercial Head of e-Aircraft, saying:
"Our Motor in its current version is neither designed, nor tested, nor approved by us for a flight above water - we explicitly prohibit you to use or let anyone else use our Motor for any flight above water."
The letter went on to say:
"In the event you do not inform us immediately about the location of the Motor and hand it back to us, we will take any further necessary legal steps to stop any planned flight."
We deeply regret the action of Siemens which prevented the flight - especially because on the other hand, it would be Siemens that would have enabled the flight, being that our aircraft used a Siemens electric motor. This is why we find this decision even more bizarre and incomprehensible. Siemens never forbade Pipistrel to fly over the water with their motor in any document or engine rental contract, so Pipistrel never broke any contract with Siemens. We are known as a company which respects the agreements and we will certainly continue to do so in the future. As requested in the letter we immediately stopped the flights in France and put the aircraft back in the trailer. On the same day the head of the local Siemens factory in Haguenau came to verify if we really did so and can confirm it. The aircraft was returned to the Pipistrel HQ facility today, Wednesday 8. July. In the next days the engine will be dismounted as requested and put on Siemens' disposal.
Pipistrel aircraft Alpha Electro has twice the range of the competitor E-fan and one third of its announced price. The biggest advantage is probably the availability: it is already possible to order and very shortly receive the Alpha Electro - but maybe not with a Siemens motor anymore.
On this occasion let me point out that it was Pipistrel that offered the first fully electric two-seat aircraft in the market, the first electric two-seat training aircraft and the first (and still the only) fully electric four seat aircraft in the world. These three aircraft belong in the elite group of less than 10 electric aircraft that are at the moment capable of flying over the Channel. Therefore we considered it logical and as our mission to perform this flight. Unfortunately it was once again the interest of the capital that prevailed, and we lost the competition on the account of fair play - we could of course still perform the flight in the next three days, but we respect Siemens and their demand not to fly over the water with their motor.
Pipistrel would like to congratulate in advance to our competitor Airbus and their pilot Mr. Francis Deborde for this new milestone in electric flight." Ivo Boscarol, Pipistrel general manager