Welcome to Orkney and the future of electric flight


Kirkwall Airport, on the windswept Orkney islands, off northern Scotland, gained a new footnote in history earlier this month. Adding to its 8,500-plus years of human habitation, the islands now boast Scotland’s first low-carbon powered aircraft flight. While it may be a first for Scotland, the 20-minute, partly electric-powered flight from Kirkwall to Wick John O’Groats Airport on the mainland carries a deeper resonance for aviation and business travel worldwide.

The 37-mile (60km) flight was made by a hybrid six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster operated by US electric flight pioneer Ampaire, now part of Surf Air Mobility (SAM). The electric EEL technology demonstrator was powered by an electric engine in the nose combined with a second conventional engine aft.

Kevin Noertker, co-founder & CEO of Ampaire, tells Corporate Jet Investor the flight marked an important first step in making air travel truly sustainable. “As the climate emergency intensifies, the need for solutions that mitigate our environmental impact becomes more paramount,” he says.

Carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants from aviation already account for about 5-14% of the world’s climate change problem and are expected to triple by 2050, he says. SAM aims to cut the industry’s environmental impact in the near-term by focusing first on hybrid electric solutions. “The series of flights in Scotland are a demonstration of our hybrid technology. By starting with hybrid electric solutions, much like the Prius did for cars, SAM is making sustainable air travel possible in the near-term to more immediately start to impact the lives of travellers and our planet,” says Noertker.

‘Much like Prius did for cars’

Ampaire is developing hybrid-electric powertrain technology that will allow existing aircraft engines to be upgraded to use both aviation fuel and electricity from lithium-ion batteries. SAM is also working towards replacing engines in Cessna Caravans with new hybrid-electric powertrains.

In July, SAM agreed an exclusive deal with Textron Aviation to purchase up to 150 Cessna Grand Caravan EX single-engine turboprops – marking the first time a major OEM has entered into a relationship of this nature, according to Noertker. Upgrading to Ampaire’s hybrid electric technology will save about 25% in direct operating cost savings as well as carbon emissions, estimates SAM. “With more than 60,000 eligible aircraft available for these upgrades worldwide and 15,000 in the US, this technology stands to have a massive impact on how the broader airline industry operates,” says Noertker.

But it’s not just airline passengers who will benefit. Developing electric and hybrid-electric technology offers the scope for low and, one day, zero emissions travel for business travellers at a time when corporations are increasingly want to burnish their environmental credentials.

SAM aims to create a network of commercially viable direct flights between regional destinations. “Hybrid-electric powertrains reduce fuel and maintenance costs, directly translating to lower cost to flyers,” says Noertker. “The global market for hybrid-electric aircraft is expected to grow to $178bn by 2040 [according to UBS] and SAM is leading this industry-wide shift.”

Another fan of hybrid power is Ivo Boscarol, founder and president of Pipistrel Group based in Ajdovščina, central Slovenia. (Pipistrel claims “the third great milestone in aviation”, with its Velis Electro two-seat electric trainer aircraft certified in June 2020. This follows, it says, the first two-stroke engine aircraft certified in 1927 and the first jet engine aircraft type-certified in 1953).

‘Third great milestone in aviation’

“We should consider interim solutions to speed up the aviation’s progress towards emission-free,” Boscarol told CJI. “Hybrid propulsion, combining electric and hydrogen fuel-cell technology, is the solution to keep all the advantages of the electric propulsion, increasing the range and enabling a real emission-free regional transport [including for business aircraft].”

The coming generation of nine-seat to 20-seat “mini-liners and microfeeder airplanes” can bring the airports closer to the passengers via short runways of only a few hundred meters, he believes. On offer is the prospect of multiple daily hops between cities or directly to the larger international terminals. “This will save the time of passengers, offer more flexibility, and save many thousand tons of fossil fuels by replacing the road travel and existing regional flight,” he predicts. The benefits to hard pressed business travellers – desperate to navigate around slashed airline schedules to see clients and prospects – are also clear.

Boscarol also believes his electric training aircraft can make a big contribution to filling the looming pilot shortage in business and general aviation. Despite swathes of Covid-related pilot layoffs, the longer-term trend is clear. Consultants Oliver Wyman predicts a global deficit of 34,000 pilots by 2025, which could reach 50,000 in the most extreme scenarios.

‘Affordable, clean and noiseless’

Pipistrel argues its electric training aircraft can help to plug that gap. “Our biggest contribution was to launch a clear signal to all the aviation industry that training can be more affordable, clean and noiseless,” Boscarol tells CJI. “So, it can be brought back closer to the urban areas where it will not disturb the local population. Such trainers offer the operation cost-per-flying-hour below €30 [$35], including energy, maintenance, depreciation and battery- and engine-overhaul.”

It’s not just small electric and hybrid-electric aircraft that are enjoying their time in the sun. At the beginning of this month DHL Express revealed it was the first to order 12 fully electric Alice e-cargo planes from all-electric aircraft developer Eviation. DHL expects to take delivery of the first Alice electric aircraft in 2024.

Meanwhile, a Citi Global Solutions & Perspective Report in September 2019 looked forward to the launch of electric aircraft in general aviation in 2022, air taxis in 2025, and regional aircraft in 2030. Add to this recent torrents of capital flowing to eVTOL projects. Now, isn’t that an electrifying prospect?

Above: Ampaire’s hybrid electric six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster made history in Scotland.

Below: Pipistrel’s Velis Electro two-seat electric trainer aircraft was certified in June 2020.

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