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Without a clean grid, today’s plans for decarbonizing aviation won’t fly

Magpie Aviation’s far-out concept provides a window into the true challenge of decarbonizing flight

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Release Date
September 6, 2023
Without a clean grid, today's plans for decarbonizing aviation won’t fly
When Magpie Aviation emerged from stealth in April this year, there was disbelief among some in the industry that its demonstrably smart founders, Damon Vander Lind and Andy Goessling, had come up with such an outlandish concept. In the weeks leading up to its big reveal, Magpie promised to “enable long-distance flights with truly zero emissions; something that was once considered impossible.” Most people expected a breakthrough aircraft design or propulsion system, but what the company actually unveiled was an aerial towing system, which would allow electric airplanes stuffed to the brim with batteries to tow other airplanes over hundreds of miles.

Skeptics immediately challenged the idea on economic and operational grounds. How could doubling the number of aircraft per flight possibly be cost-effective? How could towing a plane full of passengers through the sky possibly be safe? Vander Lind and Goessling — who previously developed electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft at Kittyhawk and airborne wind turbines at Makani Power — weren’t particularly surprised by the pushback, because they had initially been skeptical of the concept, too.

Related: Aviation’s addiction to growth is overriding its ability to lower emissions

“Intuitively, our first reaction was like, ‘This is a terrible idea. This just sounds absurd,’” Vander Lind told The Air Current. “And then we were like, ‘Well, why? If we’re going to throw this out, we have to be able to say why.’ And so as we kept digging into it, we kept saying, you know, this just sounds intuitively like you couldn’t do it, and we couldn’t find the reason we couldn’t do it.”

Most of the attention on Magpie has focused on its technical solution for enabling safe and reliable aero tows, an autonomous “Active Hook” that eliminates the need for superior pilot skill and timing. What has received less emphasis is why the company’s founders are so committed to their emission-reducing concept to begin with. At the core of Magpie Aviation is a recognition that the solutions currently perceived as the only viable options for decarbonizing large passenger planes — hydrogen and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) — could in some circumstances actually be worse for the climate than the status quo.

It’s a problem that is now at the center of a contentious policy debate over tax credits associated with the Inflation Reduction Act, yet one that many airlines and aircraft manufacturers have chosen not to dwell on — perhaps because it calls into question the net-zero plans that the industry is counting on to enable its continued growth.

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