Jeff Zaltman: Electrifying the skies with Air Race E

The Wright Brothers made history with the world’s first machine-powered flight in 1903. In the 2020s, Jeff Zaltman intends to electrify the skies unlike ever before.

When you think about the way we currently fly, there’s a good chance it is all powered by that scourge, oil. Kerosene is the go-to fuel to power much of the flights we see in our skies today, but there’s a new wave of flight technology coming to an airstrip near you.

It’s the fastest motorsport there is in the world. Think of NASCAR, but 30-40 feet in the air and faster, and that’s basically what we do.

Jeff Zaltman is CEO and Founder of Air Race Events, an organisation which intends to electrify the skies through Air Race E, a series of exciting electric air racing events, showcasing the latest in electric flight technology. Electric cars and ships have a buzz about them, but the likes of Air Race E could take electrification to all-new heights.

We sat down to speak with Jeff to explore this exciting new field of electric sports, and learn how it will get off the ground.

Taking to the skies

The Wright Brothers broke new ground or a glass ceiling as it were, when they managed to briefly leave the ground in a world-first flight using a machine-powered contraption in 1903. While the plane they used, the Wright Flyer, is a far cry from the planes which race through our skies today, there’s a lot that isn’t broken which doesn’t have to be fixed.

Air Race E is an upcoming electric motorsports championship which aims to incorporate Formula One rules but apply them to an aerial setting. A selection of teams will be pitted against one another to design their own electric planes and put them to the test in a series of exhilarating races which see them go no higher than 10 metres into the sky. The players will race in an oval circuit with a length of 5km and complete eight laps over the course of roughly five to eight minutes, at speeds close to 450km per hour.

At these speeds, the racers are starting to edge into the territory of past world land speed records. While the likes of Air Race E are unlikely to be at the lofty heights of the current land speed record (1,228km per hour), the races will be a great deal faster than many of us will be used to. “It’s the fastest motorsport there is in the world. Think of NASCAR, but 30-40 feet in the air and faster, and that’s basically what we do.”

This decade, we’ll see us travelling in electric air taxis…The future will be really exciting, it will be electric and I think aviation is in its heyday.

While speed may seem like one of the most important metrics to judge Air Race E by, it’s not speed which matters to Jeff, but rather the efficiency. “The point in electrification is not necessarily about speed”, Jeff tells us, “It’s about efficiency and other uses and how everything fits together.”

Aspects of flight such as torque, or the engine’s rotational force, have actually been toned down a touch, suggesting that electric planes can fly way faster than the speeds Jeff expects them to manage on average during the races in 2022.

Rather than starting with electric air racing from new vehicle designs from scratch, existing plane technology already provides much of the building blocks which the racers can use.

“In many cases, we’re actually retro-fitting race planes”, Jeff tells us.

The origins of Air Race E are to be found in Jeff’s previous work as former Chief Executive of Flying Aces, an air sports event management and media rights agency. Flying Aces was created in 2003, holding many air racing events, but Air Race E takes what Jeff learnt in this exciting environment and applies a greener way of doing it through electrification.

Electric wings

Jeff’s early career revolved around training as an avionics technician in the Navy, but his earliest memory was far more straightforward. “I remember first wanting to be a pilot at around 16 years old…you know, who doesn’t want to be a pilot when you’re 16 years old? I carried that with me until the point where I joined the Navy and I went into naval aviation.”

Involvement in avionics gave Jeff a nuts and bolts insight into what makes planes work, knowledge he carried forward to the present, allowing him to see how they can be electrified, and it’s a lot easier than you think. Oil used to the fuel of choice to source the kerosene needed to get most planes off the ground, but Air Race E intends to go for an electric battery power source instead. As we’ve seen with EVs, ditching a fuel tank for an electric battery could potentially change how the plane works fundamentally.

Planes often place a combustion engine situated close to the lap of the pilot, and while removal of this ICE power source and swapping for a battery might sound like an easy fix, it is a seismic shift and changes the plane in complex ways. Some may opt for a battery in the wings, for example, Jeff tells us. “It changes the centre of gravity”, he adds. While a fuel tank full of fuel may deplete during a flight, making the plane lighter as it lands, a battery would stay the same weight throughout.

As a result, fundamental aspects of flying such landing techniques would have to account for this in a completely new way. Air Race E was initially announced to begin in 2020, but for obvious reasons, restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic have required motorsports organisers to push events back. The first series will begin in 2022, with one of the races expected to allow racers to score points which can be tallied towards an overall Air Race E World Cup.

The rest of the series will be consisting of stand-alone races, giving the teams plenty of opportunities to pull ahead and claim victory in the skies. Jeff painted us a picture of what a typical Air Race E event could look like, saying: “We’re really visualising it as a festival. We want it clearly to be a motorsport event…the first thing you’re going to have is an experience of competition, excitement, adrenalin, stories to tell, winners and losers.” “But we absolutely want to make it experiential, informative, educational, and fun, and not necessarily depend on someone to like our sport. We want them to be interested, having learned something, having been familiar with the concept of electric vehicles.”

Blueprint for greener skies

Electrifying the skies takes a class-based approach with the Air Race E team, in the form of Open Class and Performance Class. In the case of the former, Jeff explains: “It’s wide open: teams can come to the table with completely different paradigms of how this should work, of different concepts of how the technology can be most effective in a race. They can select different suppliers and partners, or even some cases, they’re actually building their own components completely in-house.”

In Open Class, racers have the freedom to explore novel ideas for taking flight, but are still constrained by criteria which are also applicable to those under the Performance Class at Air Race E. Under this second class, racers are offered plane models with more commonality. “It’s very much called Performance Class, because it’s how you take the same basic system and optimise it, how do you get more out of it?”.

While Open Class allows innovative new redesigns to shake up the stakes of the racing, Performance Class allows for much more inventive innovations using the bare bones of what each team will have at their disposal. While tweaking around the edges might sound easier, it will require more attention to detail, to create models with their own unique twists. Aerodynamics can still be changed or even the way the cooling systems onboard will operate, fundamental aspects of each plane which, if subtly changed the right way, could mean the difference between soaring to new heights or coming back down to Earth.

In our discussions, Jeff touched on a completely alternate class which is also in development as part of Air Race E. While Open and Performance all pertain to types of planes, Air Race E is also working on a Vertical Class, dubbed VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) or eVTOL. This means devising vehicles which, rather than zooming across the runway and in all directions aerially, the eVTOL Class will simply move upwards and downwards.

Only announced in February 2021, eVTOL is the more shadowy of the classes to be announced, simply because so much of the hardware involved is yet to be unveiled and it is an unprecedented happenstance. A tantalising concept design shown on the eVTOL website suggests the machines involved could resemble a futuristic craft akin to the flying VTOL machines used by Skynet in the Terminator films. It gives the apparence of a drone with four rotor blades to ensure a seamless ascent and descent.

To create these eVTOLs, Jeff makes an admission: “The premise is a little bit different: the prices are the same…from a competition point of view…we’re not going to be manufacturing or commissioning the building of these aircraft. We’re going the markets saying, ‘Look, what are you guys developing out there, what makes sense to pull into a competition?’…”

Jeff reveals Air Race E won’t be developing the eVTOLs themselves but allowing the market to fill the void, with a generation of bright new businesses to devise their own models. To try and do it all by themselves would be a costly undertaking for Air Race E, but by putting it to the market to come up with solutions, it allows ideas to grow more naturally.

When you think of some of the most influential futuristic films of our time, such as Blade Runner, the Star Wars films or even The Fifth Element, the skies are seemingly abundant with flying cars. Even in Back to the Future II, when Marty McFly travels to 2015, which was a then-distant year far in the future, flying cars race overhead, and the DeLorean finds itself competing with the congested airways of 2010s California.

Existing flying technology often revolves around the hardware which helps drones fly, but we are yet to see dealerships allowing us to take a leisurely drive in the airways, nor have we seen racing events where the lines between racing track and the sky are blurred in such a way. Jeff is optimistic that flying cars are closer than we think, admitting: “This decade, we’ll see us travelling in electric air taxis…The future will be really exciting, it will be electric and I think aviation is in its heyday.”

Racing and moving around in general won’t necessarily have to involve being stuck on solid ground, and the skies seem to be quite literally opening up as a new dimension for showcasing what electrification can do. Motorsports, as we have seen through the likes of Extreme E for one, can be one of the best ways to bring attention to electrification, as televised or broadcast sports events garner the highest audiences worldwide. Air Race E takes motorsports closer to a more specific air show festival-type event, with everything to play for across a series of races full of twists, turns and all within the space of a few short minutes.

Air Race E is set to take off on its maiden flight as a racing event in 2022, but keep your eyes out for them, as it’s a real blink-and-you’ll-miss-it experience in electrification.

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