California startup Magpie Aviation is proposing an in-flight tow system to increase the range of electric aircraft. Unless and until battery technology makes some major advances, electric aircraft useful load is limited by the need to load up with batteries to fly any distance. Magpie is testing a system that will allow a plane full of batteries to tow a plane full of passengers or cargo, thereby multiplying the range of the revenue flight.
The passenger aircraft would have enough battery power for takeoff, rendezvous with the tow plane and to fly to an alternate at the other end but would effectively be a towed glider for the cruise portion of the flight. The passenger plane could even be handed off to a second tow plane to allow an even longer flight. Key to the system is a tow-line capture system that the company demonstrated in March.
Magpie CEO Damon Vander Lind told Aviation Week use of the system’s purpose-built tow aircraft could dovetail with existing electric aircraft development programs. “It sounds kind of crazy, but we kept coming back to it because we couldn’t find any reason why we couldn’t do it,” said Vander Lind. “While our modeling shows that there is an advantage to doing a custom tow aircraft like this, we get a big advantage because the more expensive and critical passenger- and cargo-carrying ‘main aircraft’ has similar requirements to today’s aircraft and so adapts well to existing in-operation and already-in-development platforms.”
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