Cross-channel row over who can claim historic electric plane flight

Airbus Group insisted that employee Didier Esteyne had claimed the record by landing at Calais, but Hugues Duval himself landed at the spot 15 hours earlier

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The Independent Online

They are, without doubt, magnifique monsieurs in their flying machines, but fierce debate raged about who was the most magnifique – and who had become the first pilot to complete a manned flight across the Channel in an electric plane.

The multi-billion-pound Airbus Group insisted that its employee Didier Esteyne, 57, had claimed the record by landing at Calais in his battery-powered E-Fan plane.

But others claimed it was the “petit poisson”, independent aviator Hugues Duval, who had snatched victory in his tiny, MC15E Cri-Cri, a home-made aircraft bearing a passing resemblance to an airborne Sinclair C5.

The noisiest claim has  been made for Mr Esteyne. At 10.51AM on 10 July, after a 36-minute flight from Lydd airfield, Kent, he was cheered into Calais by a crowd of hundreds, with Airbus’s own film crew capturing the moment from a helicopter.


Pilot Didier Estyene celebrates after landing the E-Fan electrically powered plane following his successful crossing of The Channel

Airbus, rumoured to have ploughed millions into the  E-Fan project, was ecstatic. This, said an Airbus spokesman, was a feat worthy of the legendary French aviator Louis Blériot, who in 1909 became the first person to cross the Channel in an aeroplane. Mr Esteyne, he said, was “the closest thing to a living legend”. 

Jean Botti, the company’s chief technical officer declared that “10 July 2015 will now join the list of famous days in aviation history”.

There was just one problem. Mr Duval, in his 12ft 10in-long Cri-Cri, built by his father, had touched down at Calais at 7.40pm on 9 July, about 15 hours before Mr Esteyne.

“It’s amusing isn’t it?” said Madame Anne Lavrand, the general manager of Electravia, the French company that supplied the motors for Mr Duval’s twin-engined plane. “You have the big company with lots of money, but who wins? The little fish.”

She suspected that the French aviation authorities, had been reluctant to let Mr Duval take off – perhaps because he was embarking on a potentially hazardous journey over water in an aircraft with limited flying range.

Pilot Didier Esteyne talks to the media during a news conference after landing the E-Fan electrically powered aeroplane at Calais Airport

So possibly to avoid any potential problems with officialdom, the daring aviator fixed his little plane to the back of a bigger one, on which he piggy-backed until it had taken off and carried him above international waters.

Then he and his Cri-Cri were released to fly alone. Mr Duval continued on to Dover, circling the town before crossing the entire width of the Channel to land at Calais.

The cunning plan was, said Ms Lavrand, “in the spirit of Blériot. M Duval is cunning, dynamic, and ready to do anything for his passion for aviation.”

But the initial lift from the other aircraft allowed Mr Esteyne’s supporters to claim Mr Duval’s flight was invalid.

“For goodness’ sake,” said one, “if you got taken up high enough, you could just glide across the Channel. You’ve got to hand it to the guy for being mad enough to do what he did, but it ain’t a record. You have to take off from the ground.”

Airbus issued a more magnanimous statement, saying: “We applaud the intrepid aviator Hugues Duval.

“All efforts in electric flying [help to] support our goal to advance electric and hybrid flight.”

There was, though, a highly significant caveat. Mr Duval, the statement insisted, “plays in his own category”.

The aviation giant, it appears, was not conceding victory to the little fish.