All-new, all-electric commuter aircraft takes off on maiden flight from Moses Lake
An aircraft maker from Western Washington on Tuesday provided a glimpse at one possible future for sustainable air travel — electric commuter planes. Eviation celebrated the maiden flight of an all-new, short hop airliner named Alice in Moses Lake.
The eye-catching, vaguely spaceship-like electric airliner rolled out of its hangar at dawn. It took off for the first time amid a cinematic sunrise with a belly full of batteries driving two propellers, one each on each side of its tail.
Test pilot Steven Crane was the only person on board the 9-passenger and one (or two) pilot electric plane for the maiden flight. Crane flew two loops around the airfield at about 3,500 feet altitude before setting down eight minutes later to cheers from a small number of onlookers invited by Eviation.
"It's a fast airplane, real sleek," Crane said after exiting the cockpit to a buzz of camera shutters and cell phone snaps. "Very responsive and it did well, no surprises."
Arlington, Washington-based Eviation's relatively new president and CEO, Gregory Davis, beamed with pride and accepted one congratulatory hug after another on the airport tarmac.
“What we have done is made aviation history," Davis said. "This is about changing the way that we fly. It’s about connecting communities in a sustainable way.”
"It's really ushering in a new era," Davis continued. "This is the first radical change in aerospace propulsion technology since we went from the Super Constellation to the (Boeing) 707 — from the piston engine to the jet engine — and now to the electric motor."
Davis indicated the first customer deliveries may not happen before 2027 because the plane-maker awaits further battery technology advancements to make the design commercially viable. The finalized model also needs to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, which could take a while because commercial passenger flight on electric power is so new.
Davis said when the production version enters service, Eviation wants it to have a 200 mile "useful range" on a full charge. That range would be enough to fly Seattle to Portland or Yakima to Bend, but from Seattle or Portland to Spokane would be pushing your luck. The prototype's max speed is listed as 250 knots.
Three airlines have already placed orders for the Alice model. Cape Air expressed interest in buying 75 for its short-haul routes in New England. A young charter airline out of Miami named Global Crossing recently signed up for 50. DHL ordered 12 in a cargo configuration.
DHL senior vice president for global aviation fleet management Geoff Kehr traveled from his home in Bahrain to witness the maiden flight. He said his company wishes it could have the electric plane "tomorrow," but recognizes the development and certification process will take years longer.
"Hopefully, in the future Alice will be able to grow in size and distance and range," Kehr said. "This is an absolute fundamental beginning and we want to do our bit to promote this technology by being a launch customer of Alice."
Aviation industry testing multiple green propulsion options
Battery power might not necessarily be the propulsion source of your future flights. The weight and capacity of battery packs today make them impractical to power medium to larger sized aircraft, noted Ann Ardizzone, the vice president for supply chain at Alaska Airlines. Speaking at a recent Cascadia Innovation Corridor conference, Ardizzone said she is most keen on biofuels, known in this context as sustainable aviation fuel.
"We know it works," Ardizzone said. "It requires absolutely no aircraft modifications to work. It's a drop in fuel. We can use it with our existing infrastructure. And it reduces carbon emissions by 80% on a life cycle basis."
But for now, sustainable aviation fuel is hamstrung by limited production and high costs. SAF is most commonly refined from wood or agricultural wastes or made from vegetable oil or even algae.
Ardizzone said she is also curious about hydrogen as an alternative. In the same spacious Moses Lake hangar where the all-electric Alice plane parked, a different company is converting an older, slightly larger commuter plane to run on hydrogen fuel cells. The company, Universal Hydrogen, is aiming for a carbon-free maiden flight with a converted De Havilland Dash 8 possibly before the end of this year.
Moses Lake has long attracted test flight campaigns because of its good flying weather, fairly uncrowded skies and the extra-long runways at the airfield, which are a legacy from Grant County International Airport’s former life as a Cold War-era Air Force base.
In spring 2020, some of the same partners working on the Eviation Alice — motor maker MagniX and testing and certification specialist AeroTec — celebrated the successful maiden flight of a single-engine, 10-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan converted to fly on battery power. That Moses Lake-based experiment didn’t last very long though, as the test aircraft was converted back to fossil fuel power within a year and sold off. However, the business of converting workhorse Cessna Caravans to hybrid-electric or full electric propulsion is getting a second life through new funding and partnership with Los Angeles-based Surf Air Mobility, a regional air charter broker.
Everett, Washington-based MagniX is deep into a separate project involving Vancouver, Canada-based seaplane airline Harbour Air. Those two partners toasted the first flight in late 2019 of a classic DHC-2 Beaver that they converted to run on batteries.
Canadian government certification of the electric seaplane to carry paying passengers is taking longer than originally expected. It is presently unknown when the “ePlane” will commence scheduled service. Harbour Air is sticking to its goal to eventually convert its entire fleet to fly with zero carbon emissions.
Privately held Eviation and MagniX are sister companies under the umbrella of the Clermont Group, a Singapore-based conglomerate whose founder and chairman is New Zealand-born billionaire Richard Chandler. Chandler travelled to Moses Lake to witness the Alice maiden flight in person.
Eviation earned bragging rights in the sustainable air travel space by getting its debut model airborne Tuesday. But the company, founded in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 2015, has competitors who are nipping at its heels, or tail feathers. The noteworthy rivals include Heart Aerospace of Sweden, which earlier this month scaled up its first hybrid-electric aircraft design from 19 seats to a capacity of 30 passengers. At the same time, Heart Aerospace announced an order from Air Canada for 30 aircraft. United Airlines and Mesa Air Group, which had previously ordered the (now moot) 19-passenger version, said they would take the upgraded ES-30 model.
Other competitors include ZeroAvia, which is opening an R&D facility at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, to work on hydrogen-electric powertrains for de Havilland Q400- sized aircraft, including just such a retired turboprop plane contributed by Alaska Airlines.
Also on the list of aircraft developers to watch are Airflow, a San Francisco Bay-based startup that counts alumni of the Airbus Vahana air taxi project among its leaders, and Albany, New York-based Wright Electric, which has sketched plans for the largest zero emissions planes of this bunch at 100 passengers and up.
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