Among the multiple different approaches to decarbonize aviation, few sound as audacious as that proposed by United States startup Magpie Aviation.
Magpie Aviation publicly unveiled its electric aircraft towing concept on April 24, 2023.
Battery-powered electric propulsion is considered an optimal solution from the point of view of emissions reduction. However, the low energy density of batteries remains a key obstacle for its adoption for aircraft larger than sub-regional scale.
In order to overcome this issue and fly people to their destination without emissions and regardless of the distance, Magpie Aviation has borrowed a concept that is not new in aviation: towed aircraft.
Towing, by which one aircraft is pulled through the air to its destination by another that exerts most of the traction, is a concept that has long been used by gliders (including, notoriously, during some major airborne combat operations in the Second World War). But Magpie is offering an electric twist.
In Magpie Aviation’s concept, a fleet of towing aircraft would be fitted with batteries in order to act as a tractor aircraft. They would be positioned at a number of low-traffic regional airports and would take off to link in flight with other passenger or cargo-carrying hybrid-electric aircraft.
The connection between the two aircraft, the towing and the ‘main’ one, would be established through a connector cable following a procedure not unlike that of air-to-air refueling performed by military aircraft. The two aircraft would help propel the main aircraft to its destination for part of the journey. For long distances more than one towing aircraft may be used during a single flight segment.
Magpie Aviation said it has already successfully tested the system on a small scale and is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the path to certification.
Magpie Aviation’s founders were previously at Kitty Hawk, an advanced air mobility startup funded by Google’s Larry Page, before it shut down in 2022. Kitty Hawk also partnered with Boeing to set up Wisk Aero, another advanced air mobility startup that is pursuing fully autonomous flight and which continues to operate.