My recent conversation with the Chief Engineer, Terik Weekes, of an award-winning electric and hybrid plane company led me to conclude that soon almost no flights will take people across the Atlantic and maybe none will cross the Pacific. He knows the state of the art as well as anyone. Listen to the episode to conclude for yourself, but I concluded the following.
Electric planes fly now. Many of us, including myself until I researched, figured that since nobody at the time of the Wright Brothers could have foreseen the 747 and current electric planes seem a lot more advanced than their biplanes, we’ll reach an electric 747. But when the Wright Brothers worked, all of humanity knew nearly nothing about heavier-than-air flight for humans (we saw bugs, birds, and bats flying, though). The relevant fields of aerodynamics, airplane manufacture, engines, and such were young, with much to be discovered.
By contrast, today’s relevant fields of aerodynamics, airplane manufacture, and batteries are mature fields and have been for some time. While it seems like batteries are advancing fast, the advances are minuscule compared to what long-distance flying of humans requires. We know what airplane designs are possible. We’ll experiment building more efficient designs, but we’ve known them. We just chose bigger, faster designs over more fuel efficient ones since we felt less constrained.
In other words, we won’t likely see meaningful advances in electric planes carrying people long distance. We’ll probably see advances in unmanned flights going short distances, even manned flights going a few hundred miles. But batteries will not likely come close to fossil fuels’ energy density or power delivery. Biofuels compete with human food so won’t likely work.
As I understand from Terik, we have negligible chance of creating planes that fly dozens or more humans across the Atlantic. Our best hope is likely to stop in Greenland, where we’d have to change planes since recharging a plane would take too long. Consider that bottleneck. All people flying across the Atlantic would have to change planes on one small island. How many extra planes would they need sitting there recharging?
Even if new designs work, to carry many people requires abundant safety testing, meaning time. Alternatives to batteries stretch credulity, like hydrogen, fission, or fusion.
Remember, the more pressing problem with fossil fuels isn’t that they’ll run out, though they are running out, but that their pollution is killing humans and lowering Earth’s ability to sustain life.
Conclusion: we will stop flying across oceans. My not flying is the future, not extreme. The profligate, cavalier flying of the past half-century or so will be the cruel, polluting extreme outlier of human history. It was impossible for the first 300,000 years and will become too polluting and impractical soon.
We can still sail, which was good enough for people like Benjamin Franklin and Jesus. I suggest it may be good enough for us.
Some good news
From personal experience, I can tell you good news: you will like life a lot more without access to flying so profligately. Experience not flying will reveal to you the parallel between cites becoming less humane as they moved from being based on walking to trolleys to cars and nations as they moved to flying. Just as car-based cities spread thin beyond accommodating cars to requiring them, nations spread thin with planes.
Without planes, communities will grow closer, more tolerant, and less polarized, assuming we can stop overpopulation and overconsumption from leading to our demise.
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