With a mission to promote awareness and the early adoption of hybrid and electric aircraft, along with the development of infrastructure at airports to support them, the Eco-Aviation Foundation International, a 501 C3 non-profit organization, launched recently, with a kick-off event at the Museum of Flying at California’s Santa Monica Airport. With dozens of companies currently working on such aircraft, many view their eventual acceptance as the biggest shift in the industry since the introduction of the jet engine.
“Twenty years from now, there will be very few, if any, petroleum-engined aircraft,” Scott Burgess, the organization’s president, told the audience at the event. “In our lifetime, we will see the end of them.” He pointed out that major OEMs such as Boeing and Airbus have targeted between 2035 and 2045 as the timeframe for when they expect their fleets to have transitioned to hybrid propulsion, if not fully electric powerplants.
“You’re not going to snap your fingers and it’s gone,” Burgess told AIN. “You have a good 20-year, phase-in schedule, and the small planes will come first, based upon limitations in battery density.”
The irony of the launch event’s taking place at the embattled airport, which community leaders have lobbied to close for more than a decade, wasn’t lost on many attendees. Indeed the city at the time had just commenced the shortening of the runway from 5,000 feet to 3,500, lopping off 750 feet of tarmac at each end, a project that concluded in August.
All along, the major problems cited with the airport were the noise and air pollution. “Every neighborhood near every airport complains about the same thing,” said Burgess, a Santa Monica resident for more than three decades, adding that given a hybrid aircraft's reduced emissions, and their complete elimination with electric aircraft, along with the quiet electric motors, the technology has now arrived that would render those arguments null. In the hopes of many in the local aviation community, that could perhaps be enough to stay the executioner’s ax, which hangs over SMO and is slated to drop in 2028.
“Our view that the opportunity to become a pioneer, to consider the possibilities, is combined around two factors,” said Bye Aerospace founder and CEO George Bye, one of the keynote speakers at the July event. “One is the environmental benefit, the CO2 and the noise; the other is the disruptive ability to change the equation about the cost of flying.”
Industry's Next Generation
In addition to being a hobby or a profession, general aviation is also the conduit through which the next generation of airline pilots is produced, Bye noted. A former Air Force pilot, he said that the military is no longer the robust pipeline of pilots it once was, so civil aviation is now carrying the load of producing the vast numbers of pilots required by the airlines. With that, he pointed out that the average age of the legacy training aircraft fleet is 50 years, and the cost to fly and maintain those aircraft is a great burden that gets passed along to the student pilots.
As his company’s eFlyer2 electric training aircraft is currently undergoing FAA certification, he said the current operating cost per flight hour is $3. The company expects the in-service costs for the aircraft to be approximately $23 per flight hour, or less than one quarter the cost for a conventionally powered training aircraft such as a Cessna 172. Bye sees a potential market for as many as 66,000 training aircraft to meet anticipated pilot training demands as well as to replace older, near-obsolete aircraft.
He told the audience the eFlyer2 is currently in its certification configuration, and he expects certification within the next 18 months. A larger eFlyer4 is planned for the on-demand air-taxi/private pilot segments. With far fewer moving parts in the engine, the aircraft promises drastically reduced maintenance costs over its conventionally powered brethren as well.
Those reduced operating costs would help make flight training and on-demand aviation more affordable, and perhaps even spur a resurgence in local recreational flying clubs. One of the near-term goals of the Eco Aviation Foundation is to establish a flight training circuit in California between Compton/Woodley Airport (which already has a pair of based Pipistrel Alpha Electros awaiting training approval), Santa Monica, and San Gabriel Valley Airport.
Los Angeles-based Ampaire is aiming at a different market and is taking a different approach for its first aircraft. The hybrid-electric EEL is a retrofit of the unique push/pull Cessna 337 Skymaster. One of its conventional engines has been replaced with an electric powerplant, while the other was upgraded with a new, more fuel-efficient engine from partner Continental Aerospace Technologies. According to the company, which recently opened its order book for the aircraft, the EEL is currently the largest aircraft to fly using electric propulsion. Even as a hybrid it promises to more than halve fuel burn, emissions and maintenance costs.
“A little over 100 years ago we had the dawn of powered flight; it gave us the ability to fly,” Ampaire CEO and co-founder Kevin Noertker told the audience. “Halfway between then and now we had the second revolution with the dawn of the jet age that enabled us to fly longer distances with more passengers and more payload, really connecting the world. Now we’re entering the third revolution in aviation, and again it’s driven by new opportunities in propulsion technologies that transform the economics of aviation, and this revolution will be electric.”
He sees the six-seat EEL receiving FAA STC approval by the end of 2021. The aircraft, which will have a useful range of 200 miles, is targeted to the regional airlines, and later this year, one will be flying proving runs on commercial island-hopping routes used by Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines.
Given such potential on the horizon, the foundation will also work to educate communities about the benefits of electric and hybrid aircraft in terms of noise and pollution reduction as well as lowered operation costs for students and recreational pilots. Burgess noted he was approached at the event by representatives from several airports seeking information on how to prepare for their arrival.
Toward that end, the organization is currently working on a manual for airport sponsors looking to embrace electric and hybrid-powered aircraft, which will describe their function and their unique infrastructure needs, with a planned release by the end of the year. It is also lobbying manufacturers to identify and adopt one standard recharging technology so airports wishing to attract these aircraft can quickly and confidently move ahead with installing the required hardwired charging stations. The foundation will also advocate for more widespread adoption of solar energy collection at airports to help power those charging stations.
Burgess also plans for the foundation to provide scholarships to help attract a new generation of technicians to work on these next-generation aircraft. “There’s a whole new layer of technology that is going to require training,” he told the audience. “Before you certify the aircraft, you have to certify how the mechanics are going to be trained and provide oversight, because right now there’s nothing about electric motors and these types of batteries in the curriculum.”