Aerospace engineer Steven Barrett has made aviation history by inventing an aircraft that has no moving parts and is powered by atmospheric electricity instead of fossil fuel.

Barrett’s new creation seems reminiscent of Biggles, the popular fictional World War I ace from a pioneering age of very brave men and their simple flying machines. His invention was unveiled on November 21, just 10 days after the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.

A Boeing 747-400 drinks 11 tonnes of aviation gasoline per hour, but Barrret’s aircraft needs no fossil fuels for it to glide like a silent ghost. A Star Trek fan, Barrett took eight years to turn an idea that once seemed like a science fiction fantasy into reality.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s experimental aircraft, humbly called “Version 2,” flew the 60-meter length of the campus basketball court. Its maiden flight can perhaps be compared to Oliver and Wilbur Wright’s “Wright Flyer” taking off at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, nearly 125 years ago, and forever changing the world of human travel.

Ghosts of remembrance in flying machines

In a twist of history, the electricity (ion flow)-inducing wires in the wings of Version 2 remind one of the wired aircraft of World War I, a ghost from the past when the fictional Biggles and the real-life Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) flew Sopwith Camel biplanes and the three-winged Fokker triplanes.

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German airmen stand around a downed British
Sopwith triplane during World War I. 

A Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky adds to the twist, living through World War I as a scientific hermit in a log cabin on the outskirts of Kaluga, 200km southwest of Moscow. Tsiolkovsky was one of the founders of modern spaceflight, with the ion thruster principle he discovered being reincarnated in the form of Barrett’s Version 2.

Version 2 flies with “ionic wind thrusters”  – devices that create electrically charged subatomic particles (called ions) of opposite charge – the positive ions rushing to the negative ions and unleashing the momentum or thrust that an aircraft needs to fly.

In another link across time, the ion thruster principle used in MIT’s Version 2 was first experimentally proved at Clark University in Massachusetts, during World War I.

Version 2 appears to me like a homage to World War I flyers who died young, tragic markers in the aviation timeline leading to our comfortable air travel of the 21st century. They did not die in vain, those pioneering flyers who fought fear, and were shot down or burnt to death in the skies of Europe from 1914 to 1918.

There were no parachutes until 1918; some carried pistols to shoot themselves in case their aircraft caught fire. Often their first dawn patrol was their last flight across a cold, bleak sky over the blood-soaked, muddy battlefields of Somme, Cambrai, Verdun, in a conflict involving 32 countries, with 40 million people killed.

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A rare first edition of The Camels Are Coming, the first book to feature Captain James Bigglesworth, nicknamed Biggles, of
the Royal Flying Corps. Author Captain WE Johns was a World
War I pilot. 

In 2018, Barrett used remote-controlled gadgets to safely test-fly his experimental aircraft. In 1918, World War I pilots became guinea pigs for aircraft makers. Some went to war aged 17; the average life expectancy was 11 weeks in aircraft made of wood and fabric in parts glued together.

In 1918, John MacGavock Grider was one such pilot. Just one among hundreds of American volunteer flyers in World War I, he was assigned to the British Royal Flying Corps’ 85 Squadron in France. Grider described the stress of those early days of air combat, in a diary that posthumously made him famous:

“Few men live to know what real fear is. It’s something that grows on you, day by day, that eats into your constitution and undermines your sanity. I have never been serious about anything in my life, and now I know that I’ll never be otherwise again. Here I am, 24 years old. I look 40 and feel 90. I’ve lost all interest in life beyond the next patrol.”

A few days later, Grider was shot down behind enemy lines near Armentieres, northern France. His enemies in the Fliegertruppe, the German Empire’s air force, buried him with honors and airdropped a note to his comrades describing the funeral. Grider’s life as a pilot flying a Sopwith Dolphin biplane lasted four weeks.

Biggles comes back to the future

Prolific author Captain WE Johns (1893-1968) from Hertfordshire, England, created James Bigglesworth – nicknamed “Biggles” – in 102 books chronicling his aviation adventures that captivated generations of schoolboys and instilled in many a lifelong love of flying.

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 A UNESCO Yearbook reported that Biggles was the world’s most popular schoolboy hero. Biggles spent his fictional childhood in the Garhwal Himalayas of north India (now Uttarakhand state) and spoke Hindi fluently. He later left for Malton Hall School in England. 

The Biggles character was based on Captain John’s experience as a World War I pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, and was a composite of flying aces such as Germany’s Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron), the French ace René Fonck, Canada’s Billy Bishop and the Briton Edward “Mick” Mannock, a former telephone engineer from Turkey who died fighting as the flight commander of 74 “Tiger” Squadron.

In the introduction to his sixth book, Biggles Learns to Fly, Captain Johns explained flying during World War I:

“When Biggles (and the author) learned to fly, aeroplanes and equipment, by modern standards, were primitive. …Once in the air he could more or less do as he pleased, for he was out of touch with the ground except by simple visual signals.

“….a few flights, and off you went solo. A few hours solo; and off you went to war, to take your luck. Casualties, of course, were grim; but all the same, happy-go-lucky were those days that have now become history. The mystery is that anyone survived, for apart from the risks of battle, structural failure was common, and there were no parachutes. On the other hand, the machines being slow, and made of wood, wire and fabric, one had a better chance in a crash than in the modern high-performance fighter.”

Some idea of Biggles’ flying days, the original World War 1 dogfights – and the respect the air warrior had for a fallen enemy – can be seen in this movie clip from The Red Baron, a biopic of Manfred von Richthofen (1892-1918).

Barrett’s Version 2 appears as a bridge across time, between the days of Biggles and the Boeing. Experiencing or seeing gigantic jetliners, called “heavies,” taking off and landing is an aviation fan’s endless delight – as in the excellent Pilot’s Eye series with multiple cameras in the cockpit, featuring Captain Thomas Frick and co-pilot Jennifer Knecht here in Flight Swiss LX64 taking off from Zurich to Miami.

But not many flying experiences compare to flying in a small aircraft like the Piper Cub J-3, soaring free like a solitary flamingo in flight, feeling the rushing wind, the freedom of limitless space, in subliminal touch with the cosmos.

Version 2 hybrid of the future

Barrett says his ion-powered aircraft could be more useful as silent drones in the near future. But technology is a multiplier force for advancing by great leaps and bounds. Few journalists who reported the Wright Brothers’ historic flight in 1903 could have foreseen that this is how civilian flying would be in 2018, the grand comforts of an Airbus A380.

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 An Armstrong Whitworth Ensign, one of the earliest passenger aircraft, at London’s Croydon airport in the 1930s. 

With diminishing fossil fuels and pollution perils, we could see a hybrid aircraft using conventional forces of thrust for takeoff and landing, and ion-propulsion at cruise speeds for jetliners – in appearance, the return of a World War I Sopwith Camel biplane wings, with one set of retractable wings for ion-flow creation.

The future has taken off. NASA has announced work on an ion propulsion engine, its NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (Project NEXT).  The fastest and most fuel-efficient ever engine could potentially be used for a wide range of applications including civilian flying.

The current nonstop world record of the Singapore Airlines SQ22’s 19-hour flight from Singapore to Newark could be a three-hour flight by 2038 as the tireless quest to push beyond all boundaries takes humanity to new heights.

Raja Murthy

Raja Murthy is an independent journalist who has contributed to Asia Times since 2003, The Statesman since 1990, and formerly the Times of India, Economic Times, Elle, and others. He shuttles between Mumbai and the Himalayas.