When NASA test pilot Wayne “Ringo” Ringelberg heard he had been selected along with fellow pilot Tim Williams to fly the X-57, NASA’s first all-electric airplane, his ego may have swelled just a bit.
“When the previous chief pilot told me I was going to be on this project, he was going to relay to me why I was selected, and I expected to hear a lot about my precise flying skills and my exceptional technical background,” Ringelberg said Friday, tongue firmly in cheek.
“And what he said was, ‘No, you and Tim are my two lightest guys. It’s a pretty small airplane. I don’t know if they’re going to have a weight problem or not.’”
Several members of the senior X-57 team, Ringo included, gathered at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in eastern Kern County on Friday to unveil their newest X-plane to several reporters and photojournalists.
Project leaders said the all-electric, battery-powered plane will boast a 500 percent increase in high-speed cruise efficiency, zero in-flight carbon emissions and a much quieter flight benefiting people on the ground.
Such an aircraft, exclusively propelled by electric power, has the potential to revolutionize both general and commercial aviation with its quiet design, its virtual zero-carbon output and especially incredible improvements in efficiency.
“Our focus is not to create a new vehicle type,” said Brent Cobleigh, a project manager at NASA Armstrong. “We’re in the business of filling the holes” that the commercial sector has difficulty doing.
Developing markets, such as “urban air mobility,” could potentially be jump-started by Uber-like companies that could potentially move customers safely across urban environments quickly and relatively cheaply with electric flight.
Later, small commercial flights could make use of the technology, and eventually hybrid — part electric, part conventional — airliners could be developed for long-distance commercial aviation.
The early concept began back in 2011. Then in 2015, engineers at Armstrong, attached an experimental wing to a big rig and drove it at speed on one of the dry lake beds at Edwards Air Force Base to test propeller technology and "lift.”
The X-57 is actually a retrofit of an already existing aircraft, an Italian Tecnam P2006T, said Sean Clarke, the chief investigator of the project.
The plane will have a long, skinny wing, designed at NASA Langley, with 14 electric motors, two on the wingtips and 12 on the leading edge of the wing.
The X-plane, so designated by the Air Force due to its experimental nature, will use all 14 motors during takeoff and landing. But at cruising altitude, the props on the 12 smaller motors will stop and fold away until they're needed again.
Battery technology has long been a limiting factor for electric-powered aircraft in terms of how much power they can store. But that is changing, Clarke said.
“These technologies were not ready ... five years ago, he said.
The X-57 isn't trying to fly faster, he said. Just cheaper, cleaner and quieter.
Later Friday morning, Ringelberg demonstrated what piloting the plane is like on a flight simulator.
With a giant screen in front of him, he sat in the pilot’s seat and lifted off, turning and cruising over a desert landscape similar to the one right outside the doors.
The X-57 is the first crewed X-plane developed by NASA in the past 20 years. And there’s a sense of pride for the project that is palpable at the desert facility.
It doesn’t have the fireworks associated with the Bell X-1, which first broke the sound barrier in 1947, or the monstrous capabilities of the X-15 rocketplane, which broke numerous altitude and speed records in the 1950s and ‘60s.
But the X-57 does have the capacity to change the world.
And that’s what they’re flying for.