Trump Suggests Planes Can’t Fly When It’s Not Sunny

Close-up of Trump's mouth speaking into microphone

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At a campaign rally in Virginia last week, former President Donald Trump expressed concern that battery-powered airplanes wouldn’t fly in cloudy conditions. Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, apparently believes that batteries of the sort that could power airplanes would be dependent on solar energy. Aviation experts agree that no airplane would be, or could be, flown that relied solely on solar power to stay airborne.

In an extended, extemporaneous aside during a speech in which he falsely claimed that the U.S. inflation rate exceeds 30 percent (it stands at 3 percent), and falsely asserted that rioters in Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; and Seattle had been “ripping people apart and killing people” after the murder of George Floyd, Trump said, of green-energy advocates, “All they know is electric. They want electric army tanks. They want electric planes.” Trump then looked up to the sky.

“What happens if the sun isn’t shining while you’re up in the air?”

“Well, sir,” he said, in the voice of (presumably) a Biden-administration battery expert, “those—I told you there’d be problems, sir.”

At first glance, Trump appeared to be conflating solar-powered aircraft with new electric planes, a different technology altogether. A Trump-campaign spokesperson did not respond to my request for clarification.

Trump’s argument was refuted by flummoxed aviation experts, including James Fallows, a pilot and longtime Atlantic writer. Fallows wrote on X, “Electric planes run ON BATTERIES. His question is like asking, ‘How can you use an iPhone if it’s dark outside.’”

Fallows explained to me that some aircraft indeed have solar panels on their wings, but that the budding electric-flying business as a whole is “entirely about batteries.” Just as a Tesla can be driven at night, Fallows said, an electric plane could be flown after dark.

Donald R. Sadoway, an electrochemist and a professor emeritus at MIT who has been recognized internationally for his battery inventions, said that electric airplanes are “a long way off” yet. “I work in batteries, and I know what they’re capable of,” he said. “But the power-to-weight ratio just is not where it needs to be.”

He said, “The question of whether it’s before sunset or after sunset comes after the question of whether the batteries have the power-to-mass ratio.”

Asked what he thinks about a presidential candidate speaking about batteries this way, Sadoway laughed. “Are we talking about the scientific literacy of any candidate?” he said. “I question the scientific literacy of anybody who’s running for president.” He added: “There are so many battery posers out there who don’t know the cathode from the anode.”

Trump has long been preoccupied with questions about the use of batteries in various forms of transportation. During a speech last month, Trump went on an extended, and seemingly spontaneous, riff about the dangers of electric-powered boats.

“What would happen if the boat sank from its weight and you’re in the boat, and you have this tremendously powerful battery, and the battery’s now underwater, and there’s a shark that’s approximately 10 yards over there?” he asked. (Trump has historically also been preoccupied with sharks.)

Last September, at an appearance in California, Trump denounced the idea of using electric-powered tanks in combat: “They’re going electric-crazy,” Trump said, apparently referring to battery-power advocates in the Biden administration. “It doesn’t work. They want an all-electric army tank. So they want an army tank that’s electric; you can’t get it recharged, it doesn’t go far enough, it doesn’t go strong enough, but they want to have electric so that we go into enemy territory. We will blast the shit out of everybody, but at least we will go in with environmentally nice equipment. Can you believe it?”

The Army, the branch of the military that deploys tanks, has no plans to use all-electric-powered tanks. The Pentagon is currently exploring the use of electric-powered “nontactical” vehicles, those not used in war-fighting, and has stated that by 2050, fielding electric-powered tactical vehicles may be possible. But for a set of obvious reasons, no combat commander would agree to deploy armored vehicles that do not possess a reliable source of power.

Still, Trump continues to describe renewable energy as dangerous. Electric automobiles have been one of Trump’s frequent targets. Trump has claimed that the Biden administration’s electric-vehicle policies would “kill” the automotive industry. At a March rally in Dayton, Ohio, Trump lambasted this “all-electric nonsense, where the cars don’t go far.” Speaking at last month’s Turning Point Action’s People’s Convention, a conservative conference in Detroit, Trump referred to the Green New Deal as the “Green New Scam,” and lamented the existence of water-saving measures in showers and dishwashers.

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