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Boeing's Honda-FCX-style fuel cell glider 'success'

Electric plane in Spain seems mainly inane

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US aerospace colossus Boeing has at last successfully trialled a manned fuel-cell hybrid electric plane produced by its Spanish research facility, according to reports.

The company told Flight International that it had carried out several test flights in the vicinity of Ocaña airfield south of Madrid. A modified motor-glider powered solely by a fuel cell sustained level flight at 3,300 feet for 20 minutes, travelling at 54 knots. Supplementary power from a lithium-ion battery was necessary for climb performance.

Boeing Research & Technology Europe (BR&TE), based in Madrid, has been working on the "Fuel Cell Demonstrator Airplane" (FCDA) since 2001. The sole goal of the programme is to "demonstrate for the first time that a manned airplane can maintain a straight level flight with fuel cells as the only power source".

One should note that this isn't a very ambitious technical feat. A manned aeroplane can maintain straight and level flight powered only by the muscles of its pilot.

FCDA flight tests were initially planned for 2004. They then slipped to 2005, and a year ago Boeing was predicting success by the end of 2007.

The FCDA's mildly pointless goal has now belatedly been achieved, but this doesn't herald a brave new world of hydrogen-powered hybrid electric planes. There is a niche for fuel-cells in powering aircraft, but it involves extending the endurance of small low-powered electric unmanned jobs - not carrying people.

Boeing's only realistic hope for fuel cells in manned aircraft is that they might one day replace the gas-turbine auxiliary generators fitted to airliners for powering their electrical systems. Even that seems a long way off.

The Flight report can be read here. ®

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