By Tim Hepher
PARIS (Reuters) - An attempt by Airbus to make history by crossing the English Channel in an electric plane ended in wounded pride on Friday after a French pilot claimed to have beaten it by hours.
In a further twist, a Slovenian businessman said he might have beaten both of them earlier in the week if he hadn't been robbed of his chance of glory.
In a contest that echoed the cloak-and-dagger rivalries of aviation's early pioneers, it was Frenchman Hugues Duval, 35, who emerged on top by secretly crossing the Channel in both directions in his one-seater Cri-Cri, launched off the top of another plane on Thursday evening.
"We crossed the Channel before Airbus. The only way I could do this was to hide and do it with the utmost discretion," he told Reuters.
That came more than 12 hours before Didier Esteyne piloted an Airbus E-Fan across the Channel from Lydd, in Kent, to land on French soil in Calais on Friday, watched by dozens of journalists and VIPs.
The E-Fan flight took the opposite direction from Louis Bleriot's first heavier-than-air crossing in 1909. Airbus's aim was to highlight the promise of electric flight, which it says could ultimately produce a 100-seat regional passenger plane.
Airbus gamely conceded defeat to the Cri-Cri, with its chief technology officer Jean Botti telling reporters, "It's not a victory but a start...the start of a great innovation."
Privately, however, Airbus officials said Duval's tiny one-seater, weighing just 70kg (154 lb) and built by a small team in Brittany, was too small to be considered an airplane. They also grumbled at the fact it had been catapulted by another plane.
Adding further intrigue, Slovenian entrepreneur Ivo Boscarol said his own attempt to cross the Channel in a Pipistrel electric plane even earlier in the week was thwarted when Germany's Siemens abruptly took away its engine, saying it was not certified over water.
"History is always about who is first and nobody is interested in the second or third," Boscarol told Reuters. "That is it and life must go on."
Siemens said it had only acted out of concerns for safety and denied any link between the decision and its role in helping to verify the design of the Airbus E-Fan's twin engines.
Boscarol said he would continue to work with the German company, noting that the research could bring serious business opportunities including in the field of pilot training.
The contest in the skies above the Channel took place 75 years to the day after the Battle of Britain, the epic air contest between the British and German air forces in World War Two.
"The Channel, especially for French and English pilots, has a special place on the pedestal like flights over the Atlantic. It has a kind of religious prestige," Boscarol said.
(Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)