Jean-Christophe Lambert is building a hybrid helicopter engine to help usher in a new epoch of flying clean

One hundred seventeen years after the Wright brothers propelled the first aircraft into the sky, Jean-Christophe Lambert is working on a new engineering miracle – flying clean.  A trained engineer, Jean-Christophe entered the world of electric aviation ‘by chance’ when he followed his former boss into a new electric aircraft programme. As part of a team of AIRBUS engineers, he helped to build the historic two-seater E-FAN – one of the world’s first electric aircrafts to cross the channel from the UK to France. But after the E-FAN took flight in 2015, Jean-Christophe felt that his mission wasn’t over.  “We were convinced that the electrical aviation journey we started on at AIRBUS was a complex journey and we wanted to continue pushing the boundaries.” In 2018, he co-founded Ascendance Flight Technologies with three AIRBUS colleagues to look at “how to transform aviation using cleaner technology.” And the world’s never needed this transformation more: where the dream of soaring through the sky was once one of humankind’s proudest feats, today, flights have become synonymous with Flygskam and the world’s worst polluters. In ever-increasing numbers – flights are tarnishing the skyline and choking the air. Global commercial flights emitted 918 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018. UN data projects that if other sectors cut emissions as predicted, within 30 years, aviation could become the single biggest emitter of carbon dioxide. Flying clean may be every environmentalist’s dream – but without the vision and dedication of green techpreneurs like Jean-Christophe – it’s one that will remain a pie in the sky. When Jean-Christophe isn’t out hiking in the Pyrenees on a day off, he’s all-consumed with pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Ascendance Flight Technologies aims to replace the helicopter with a clean hybrid engine model, ATEA: “ATEA is the first use case, all the technology we develop for ATEA we’ll use as technological capital that can be reused for other small conventional aircraft.”  

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What do you hope to achieve with Ascendance Flight Technologies?

We want to offer a better or safer flying experience that’s decarbonised and useful. With our model ATEA, we’re looking to replace the helicopter. Our prototype engine uses a combination of fuel and batteries; we’re creating enabling technologies for hybrid distributed propulsion that can be used for existing aircraft. You’d have significant gains, without having to change the whole plane, but just the motorisation.  Compared to a helicopter, what we’re developing is already an 80% reduction of emissions, and we’re planning to replace the remaining carbon emissions in coming years. We think it will evolve along with new energy sources that will come out in the next years. From 2025, we expect to have an aircraft with alternative fuel on the market. A lot of industries need to be transformed. We can contribute our small bit – if we take a new angle, a lot is possible, right now.

Why can’t larger airplanes run on clean energy?

The capability of existing clean technologies is still far from being adapted for use on huge aircraft. The problem is that you need to sustain the plane in the air, a battery is 50 times less dense in terms of energy, compared to conventional oil and gas fuel. It will use too much power and quickly deplete the battery because it’s not dense enough.  Some technological advances have drastically improved the carbon efficiency of aircraft. There are different possibilities, hydrogen, and what we call synthetic fuel; but right now, there is no right energy to use for aircraft. There are some massive technical gaps to crack before we’ll get big planes running on alternative energy – I don’t see this happening for another ten years.

What are your top tips for pushing the boundaries of innovation?

Innovate on a blank slate

When I was close to getting a job in electric aviation, my first reaction was to feel like I didn’t know anything about it – but in the end, I realised not having that background was an opportunity or a gift.

Because when you’re designing very disruptive stuff, if you’re learning at the same time – it allows you to create without being confused with how you would usually develop a conventional aircraft. So you can create something new without consideration of limits or what you did before. 

See failure as part of the journey

Making flights, seeing if it works and failing – it’s part of the journey. We started a learning curve, and we began to see where the possibilities were in these technologies and where the limitations are. Once you understand this, you can continue your journey, and you become more aware of what you need to develop to decarbonise a small aircraft. 

Building resilience is very, very important. When you fail, it helps if you see what you gained or how you performed more than what you didn’t achieve.

It’s not easy to find the right compromise between what can be developed now, and where you intend to go. There’s a constant trade-off between market requirements, safety prohibitions, and the environmental impact which we constantly challenge. 

Bring in new people with fresh ideas and energy

It’s good to have a mix of new people who innovate without knowledge of current limits, and some experienced people who aren’t scared to change the standard process. In the innovative process, once you’ve done something for 20-30 years, it’s very difficult to say we’ll do it differently. When someone brings in something new, the first things you see are the limits. You don’t see that maybe it’s possible to surpass those limits and then we can reach a higher potential. Even for Ascendance, at some point I may begin to be the guy who sees the limits, and it’s crucial to bring in new talent and shakers so we can keep pushing over the boundaries. 

When you have a disruptive project, it’s essential to bring in new ideas and new energy and be aware that you can start to be the guy who sees the limits. 

Describe your startup journey in three words

Surprising, rich in experience, challenging

What does it take to keep a team at the forefront of innovation?

I strongly believe in co-creation and sharing knowledge. I used to tell the team that Ascendance started with four people, but it’s not just four people’s product. Today we have 12 people, but it won’t be just 12 people’s product, tomorrow, if we are 100 people, it will be 100 people’s product. Everyone should take a slice of the cake. What I really liked was when somebody joined us, just three days later we had a meeting, and he kept on saying ‘we plan to’ – he was already acting like it was his project.

Is there a principle you follow in life and business?

We have a concept of optimistic lucidity – this can be contrary, but very powerful. You must be optimistic about innovating to continue to push through all the problems and develop a technology you believe in. But you have to have some lucidity too, so you don’t expend energy in something that doesn’t make sense. We can prove that you can make improvements today, but we’re not blind.            ………………If Jean-Christophe could teleport himself into the future, he’d be coaching and mentoring new entrepreneurs: “I’d like to be sharing the experience I gained on the fabulous Ascendance journey of decarbonising aircraft.” His dream house would be near a mountain range, “a cute old house that I can modernise.” It would be close to nature and have “a huge garden so I can do some gardening.”  

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Jean-Christophe’s book recommendations:
Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Metre Peak by Maurice Herzog They weren’t afraid to discuss and change plans to get to their goal, they interacted a lot with local people. So in a sense, it was about diversity on the team.
A networking event you should go to:
Any networking event that promotes meeting with other entrepreneurs is very good. The lessons learnt, the sharing, means you learn a lot.

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