All-Electric Commercial Airplane Takes First Flight

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© James Glave. James Glave

“December 10, 2019 will be remembered as the day the electric aviation age started.”

The National Observer's James Glave calls it a "Kitty Hawk moment" – the first flight of an all-electric float plane on the Fraser River south of Vancouver. It's a converted 62 year old DeHavilland Beaver, the workhorse of the North, with a new 750 horsepower electric aircraft motor from Seattle's magniX.

The plane was piloted by Harbour Air's CEO Greg McDougall, who Glave quotes:

"That was just like flying a Beaver but a Beaver on electric steroids." McDougall told a crowd of reporters immediately following the flight. "It was such a great performance we had no way of knowing how it would perform until we flew it, and it was amazing."

Harbour Air services the islands in the Vancouver area, so many of its flights are within the relatively limited 70 mile range of the electric plane. The combination of short routes and classic Beavers is a great place to start. Glave quotes the motor's maker:

"A revolution starts, as they say, with the first shot," magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski told the Observer in a telephone interview this past week. "And this flight is that shot."

Glave notes that the direct-drive prop motor has the same heft as the engine it replaces, and the batteries about the same as a full tank of fuel. But to go much farther or carry much bigger loads, better batteries are needed; kerosene has 40 times the energy density of batteries.

Ganzarski tells Fast Company that there are big savings from going electric, both in fuel and maintenance, because electric motors are so much simpler. “The operating cost per flight hour will be anywhere between 50% to 80% lower.”

It will be a while before island hoppers in British Columbia are flying on electric power; there will be about two years of testing and approvals. But the Minister of Transport, former astronaut Marc Garneau, is enthusiastic, telling the Guardian that “it could set a trend for more environmentally friendly flying.”

Plane in hangar

© James Glave

This is exciting, although Glave throws a bit of cold water on it by reminding us that only a small proportion of flights are short enough to go electric, and that the vast bulk of emissions come from longer flights. He quotes Andrew Murphy of NGO Transport & Environment:

“The science is clear that we will need to halve our emissions by 2030 if we’re to avoid catastrophic climate change. There is zero prospect of electric aircraft making a serious dent in emissions before, or even after that date. And so we need to fly less, and when we do fly—[we must do so using] a fuel other than kerosene.”

(See my own negativity about fuels other than kerosene in a recent post.)

Ganarski dismisses that point of view. “Being skeptical is easy. You don’t need much to point out flaws; what’s hard is to see the vision, to see the future, and go chase it.” We will end on a positive note with his statement: “December 10, 2019 will be remembered as the day the electric aviation age started.”