When the E-fan Airbus touched down in Calais, France on the morning of July 10, it was greeted by a large crowd celebrating the news that a rogue adventurer had made the same journey in an electric aircraft just a few hours earlier.

Frenchman Hugues Duval flew from Calais to England and back again under cover of darkness in his Cri-Cri E-Cristaline electric aircraft - despite being warned not to make the flight. Duval only filed his flight plan late on July 9, and as he has a permanent Permit To Fly, there was nothing the giant french aviation company could do to stop him.

Because he lacked authorization to take off from Calais, another fuel-driven plane towed his 100-kilogram (220-pound) Cri-Cri for the start of the trip, he told The Associated Press. Then he flew autonomously back to Calais and landed safely.

Duval is a former holder of the world speed record for electric aircraft in the CRI-CRI. The tiny aircraft has a wingspan of just over 16 feet and is powered by two 35-horsepower electric motors and a pair of lithium batteries. The electric CRI-CRI can fly for about 25 minutes at 65mph.

The E-fan Airbus flown by Didier Esteyne has a similar design: it's a carbon-fiber, two-seater, twin-engine plane also powered by lithium batteries. Estyene took off from Lydd in England on July 10 and landed in Calais, France just 36 minutes later. Estyene is both the pilot and the chief designer of the E-Fan, which weighs just 1,323 pounds and traveled at an altitude of about 3,500 feet for the short flight.

The 74-kilometer (46-mile) flight might seem small, compared with the exploits of the solar-powered Solar Impulse 2 currently circumnavigating the globe - but the contest to be the first electric plane to cross the English Channel has stirred intrigue similar to that for the early airplane pioneers.

A third player, electric aircraft maker Pipistrel, was also planning to make the flight this week. However, the electric motor used by Pipistrel was supplied by Siemens (a commercial partner of Airbus) - which, out of the blue, asked for the motor back and prohibited any flight over water.

Duval's achievement is reminiscent of Louis Bleriot's maiden flight across the Channel in 1909, when he also narrowly beat two rivals to the feat.

"For us, it's an adventure that permits us [to imagine commercial flight on electric or hybrid planes]," said Esteyne, who - after landing in Paris - must have been dejected to learn that he had not set the record. "It's really the beginning of great innovations."

Airbus plans to start building commercially viable two-seater and four-seater versions of the E-fan as early as 2016.

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