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Back to the Future - with Erik Lindbergh



Erik Lindbergh, aviator, adventurer, artist, honoured the 75th anniversary of his grandfather's historic flight in 2002, retracing his solo transatlantic journey in a single-engine Lancair aircraft.

His journey raised over one million dollars for three charities, garnered half a billion media impressions for his X PRIZE (Sustainability) Foundation and jump-started the private Spaceflight industry.

Now, as he prepares for the 100th Anniversary in May 2027, the British Business and General Aviation Association was honoured to host him as guest speaker for its ‘Looking Back to the Future’ annual conference earlier this month. With special thanks to Air Partner for sponsoring his trip from Seattle.

Erik Lindberg speaking at the BGGA Annual Conference earlier this month.

Erik Lindberg speaking at the BGGA Annual Conference earlier this month.

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. “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,” highlighted his grandson, Erik Lindbergh, speaking in London.

Erik lauded Raymond Orteig - the visionary American hotelier who pledged US$25,000 prize money for that historic flight. Seven teams competed. “Conventional wisdom would have backed a multi-engined aircraft entry. My Grandfather offered a single-engine airplane, over an ambitious 33-hour flight. Orteig only had to pay the winner, yet everyone benefitted with all competitors investing $400,000 on research and development into long distance air travel.”

Escape from Gravity

Erik thanked his own ‘sponsor’, newly retired orthopaedist Dr Bill Barrett, who, on December 27, replaced a pad in his knee. He put an original one in 47 years ago. “Thanks to him - I’m here, on this stage,” he said. “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 continuous determination to ‘escape from gravity.’ I've been doing it all my life, flying, skiing, climbing mountains,” he said.

Since school he water-skied on the back of a boat, became a state champion gymnast; climbed and skied Mount Rainier, in his backyard of Seattle. Aged 21, however, Erik was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and by age 30 he had both knees replaced. During that ‘grounded’ time he turned creative, building furniture, crafting sculptures. Erik was commissioned to make a wooden sculpture of the Spirit of St. Louis by two pilot brothers who were flying for FedEx. 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, I determined to recreate that flight.”

Erik Lindberg speaking at the BGGA Annual Conference earlier this month.

In 2002, he flew a Lancair four seat aircraft from New York to Paris to mark the 75th anniversary and to promote the future of space travel for the Lindbergh Foundation’s XPrize. It pledged US$10 million to the first privately-funded spacecraft programme to venture into space, return safely, and do it again, in a reusable, affordable craft.

That Ansari XPRIZE - awarded to designer Burt Rutan - launched the commercial spaceflight revolution and paved the way for Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson. (Rutan’s SpaceshipOne displays in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, alongside the Spirit of St. Louis).

Passionate about decarbonising aviation, Erik co-founded VerdeGo in 2017. Since that time the industry has exploded with investment with some radical eVTOL designs, he said. “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 all these different designs.”

The need for more SAF

We saw how Uber changed the way we move around in cities. The realisation is that the (sustainable) change will start in (fixed wing) Regional Air Mobility - and with hybrid/electric aircraft, he said. “We need more Sustainable Aviation Fuel, because it’s the quickest way to decarbonize most of our carbon emissions - but it's very expensive.”

There is an opportunity in the US alone, he said, to unlock more than 10 billion gallons of SAF. “We need sponsors to carry our research forward and sponsors for our $10m XPRIZE, for this would achieve the highest reduction in aviation carbon in the shortest amount of time, for the least money.”

Erik Lindbergh with Kevin Macnaughton, Managing Director and Helen Stone-Ward, Senior Legal Counsel, Air Partner.

Erik Lindbergh with Kevin Macnaughton, Managing Director and Helen Stone-Ward, Senior Legal Counsel, Air Partner.

Hybridization, where VerdeGo is focusing, optimizes flight without recharging engines and battery issues, thermal runaway. Adding SAF, carbon output is reduced.

Working with Erik at VerdeGo are Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University co-founders Dr. Pat Anderson, who started the first hybrid/electric propulsion system and Eric Bartsch, who helped Erik fly the first electric aircraft nearly 10 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 and battery-electric powertrains to their aircraft. It has already won several military contracts, and a few commercial customers. It started building an iron bird, the VH, for testing and R&D and is now progressing with the H2, H3, H4 and H5, towards certification.

“My grandparents flew around the world on charter routes from the late 1920s,” said Erik. “Advancing technology enabled them to travel great distances, meet people in foreign cultures and enjoy incredible experiences.” After Charles Lindbergh died, Neil Armstrong and General Jimmy Doolittle founded the Lindbergh Foundation at the Explorers’ Club in New York, pledging innovation grants. To date, the Foundation has awarded US$3 million in grants, 50-plus awards, including for electric aircraft initiatives to get the industry moving. “Our focus is now on decarbonising aviation and stimulating education for next generation aviators, ahead of the 100th anniversary.”

Erik didn’t reveal what he plans for the 100th, but he hopes it will be ‘literal’ electric flight. Establishing a home in St Louis too, is imminent.

“With sponsorship we can scale up our Incentive Prizes, decarbonize aviation, and inspire kids through education,” he said, sharing a series of inspirational videos his Foundation helped coordinate.

“Aviation has a target on its back”

“We need to tell our story far and wide, because aviation has a target on its back. We have real existential threats. And if global warming is getting worse, then we may have to shut down. We need aviation, we need our environment too . . . that's why I'm applying myself. The education programmes for kids we are running are inspiring because the next generation will have to tackle solutions that will give 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 Foundation,” he concluded.

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BlueSky Business Aviation News | 28th March 2024 | Issue #741


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