Surf Air Mobility is acquiring hybrid electric aviation pioneer Ampaire in a deal worth more than $100 million. The private air travel company aims to have hybrid aircraft available by 2024 for customers booking its scheduled and on-demand services.
All Ampaire employees will be joining Surf Air Mobility and its co-founder, Kevin Noertker, will be president of a new division called AMP. Both companies are based in Los Angeles.
The Ampaire team is working on plans to convert several aircraft types to hybrid-electric propulsion, building on recently completed flight tests with its Electric EEL conversion of a Cessna 337. It believes the first of these programs, which likely will include the De Havilland Twin Otter and Cessna Grand Caravan, could be certified by the end of 2023.
“The probability of achieving this timeline has increased as a result of this announcement,” Noertker told AIN. The company expects to get its first supplemental type certificate for a hybrid-electric retrofit within three years, with a second following around 12 months later as the process is streamlined.
The deal announced today comes almost exactly 12 months after parent company Surf Air acquired charter broker BlackBird, which in May 2019 ordered up to 110 of Bye Aerospace’s all-electric eFlyer light aircraft. Since these models can seat only four people and the aircraft types Ampaire is looking to bring to market will carry up to 19 passengers, the two types would appear to be complementary to Surf Air’s business model.
The new Surf Air Mobility division will offer retrofits for existing aircraft, including, it hopes, some of the 2,000 or so aircraft currently offered by multiple operators through the Surf Air marketplace. The company will also market the retrofit packages to other operators, in some cases sourcing available preowned airframes. It is already in talks with unnamed manufacturers about the prospect of supporting the production of hybrid-electric new-build aircraft.
“There are tens of thousands of aircraft eligible for this type of powertrain upgrade worldwide,” Noertker explained. For now, he is focusing mainly on aircraft certified under the FAA’s Part 23 rules (for airframes not exceeding 12,500 pounds maximum takeoff weight) as offering the best payload and performance combination from currently available hybrid-electric technology. Ampaire said it has fielded inquiries from regional airlines looking to replace turboprop aircraft on routes of between 50 and 500 miles.
The retrofit plan provides a way to give a new lease of life to existing, smaller aircraft that have not been seen as especially desirable for private charter or scheduled airline services. Noertker believes operators are now more eager than ever to tip the economic scales in their favor in the wake of an air transport business model that has been jolted by the Covid pandemic. "This segment [older aircraft] has atrophied away, but with this technology it is a very large market opportunity," he commented.
“By focusing on shorter, regional routes in the near term, hybrid-electric aircraft will completely transform the way we think about how we travel,” said Surf Air Mobility president Fred Reid. “By improving the cost structure, we’re able to create a new kind of point-to-point network that opens up previously untenable markets with more direct connections.”
Ampaire estimates that existing aircraft retrofitted with its propulsion system could deliver operational cost savings of at least 25 to 30 percent. It said that the cost of the powertrain is on par with new Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprops.
In addition to on-demand charter flights using a variety of light aircraft, Surf Air operates scheduled services across the western U.S. using Pilatus PC-12 turboprop singles. The routes include Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Houston, as well as Burbank, Hawthorne, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Oakland, Napa, Concord, San Carlos, and Santa Ana in California; and Las Vegas, Tahoe, and Reno in Nevada. Services are available to members of its “private air travel club” who can make as many trips as they like for a fixed monthly membership fee.
“With flight demonstrations and testing already in progress, Ampaire’s hybrid-electric powertrain technology brings us closer to the next great shift in air travel: sustainable aviation that’s accessible to everyone,” said Surf Air Mobility founder Sudhin Shahini.
Now the main focus of Ampaire’s attention is the Eco Otter SX design study, for which NASA is providing $6.4 million funding, to convert the 19-seat Twin Otter from its current turboprop engines. An alternative conversion program for that model is in the works with rival electric propulsion specialist MagniX, with Canadian operator Harbour Air eager to be an early adopter for the all-electric conversion with its services in the Vancouver area.
For each aircraft type, the Ampaire team will have to develop a bespoke architecture for what Noertker called the building blocks, including the power electronics, the propulsion unit, and the batteries. "The sizes will be different for each aircraft type, but it is the same core technology with some new engineering each time, although a lot of the data will carry over," he explained.
Ampaire is also working on a program called Tailwind, which appears to be a new all-electric aircraft. It is also partnered on this project with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program and the U.S. Air Force.
The company has released little information about this aircraft but it is expected to be powered by a tail-mounted ducted fan. It is also the beneficiary of NASA funding. "With a clean-sheet design like this we're seeing that it doesn't have to look like a traditional aircraft configuration, and so this is a north star of an idea of what could be possible, a platform for us to explore advanced concepts," he said.
In recent flight trials in Hawaii with local regional carrier Mokulele Airlines, Ampaire flew the Electric EEL demonstrator on real routes but without passengers to evaluate how the propulsion system would work in an operational environment. It achieved flights of more than 340 miles during the program and with durations of up to three hours.