When I talk with anyone interested in learning to fly, two topics seem to always come up. Pilots complain about the cost of flying and their spouse, who is usually not a pilot, worries about safety. It’s been this way for decades.
Well, things might be about to change. There’s a technology on the horizon that has the potential to increase safety and vastly reduce the cost of flying. It’s the electric airplane.
Before you say, “Eeeh, it’ll never happen” hear me out. Admittedly, innovation and change happens slowly and this is especially true in the highly regulated world of general aviation.
In the past 30 years, clean sheet aircraft designs that have made it to full scale production are as rare as hen’s teeth. The reasons for this are simple. The capital costs required to take an airplane from concept to customer delivery are staggering. And when the plane does come to market, the profit margins are usually razor thin, even in the best of times.
But electric power and the new Part 23 certification rules might just be the combination startups need to succeed.
The basic elements that make up a plane’s construction haven’t changed much since the Wright brothers first took to the sky. No matter the design, powered airplanes have three major components: The engine, the avionics, and the airframe.
When we look at the evolution of the various parts, airframes and avionics have certainly improved with time, but engines haven’t. The Lyco-saurus or fossilized Continental engine mounted in front of 95% of all piston powered GA aircraft have had the same basic design since the 1950s.
To take a leap forward in both safety and cost reduction, the way aircraft are powered also needs to evolve. In comes the electric airplane.
According to Mel Johnson, deputy director of the FAA’s Policy and Innovation Division, the FAA is willing and supportive of the development and certification of electric airplanes.
Johnson says that with the new Part 23 rules, the Policy and Innovation Division is working closely with industry groups, such as RTCA (Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics), SAE and ASTM among others, looking for ways to speed the certification process while simultaneously ensuring proper risk mitigation and acceptable levels of safety are achieved.
He went on to say that with the new Part 23 rules, there’s an opportunity to better leverage technology transfer from the electric automotive industry and apply what works directly into electric aircraft propulsion.
“But it’s more than just the electric motor that’ll need to be tested and certified,” Johnson cautioned.
“The batteries, for instance, have to be capable of withstanding a wide range of operating temperatures and the vibrations of turbulence and hard landings,” he noted.
He also stressed that the entire propulsion system will have to meet certification standards, including the electrical controls, power distribution system, and how all the various components are installed.
“They will all have to meet the required safety standard before the entire airframe can be certified,” he said.
While the standards for cars are different than airplanes, technological advancement and consumer acceptance is happening at a rapid pace. In just the last five years Tesla has sold more than 250,000 vehicles. Seeing this emerging trend, other automakers are quickly trying to catch up.
Just like Tesla, whoever creates a viable electric airplane will lead the market and other GA manufacturers will follow.
And even though FAA officials have said they are enthusiastic about the opportunities electric airplanes might bring, it won’t be without challenges. The driving forces behind widespread acceptance of an electric airplane will be realizing the promise of reduced costs, range, availability of infrastructure, and safety.
So, who’s leading the charge (Pun intended)?
Sun Flyer also recently announced plans to produce a four-seat variant.
With the boom in airline hiring and the need for low cost flight training, the timing for these ventures might be ideal. In 2016 a Boeing study projected that the world will need an additional 637,000 commercial airline pilots by 2035. The business of training these pilots will gravitate towards viable, low-cost solutions.
“We are innovating with purpose,” said George Bye, CEO of Bye Aerospace, which is developing the Sun Flyer. “Through the use of transformative technology, our trainer brings with it disruptive affordability that will change the way people all over the world learn to fly.”
And if the cost projections are correct, he may be right. According to Bye, operating costs of the Sun Flyer trainer will be 5.5 times lower than an equivalent Cessna 172 — $16 an hour vs $88 an hour.
Additional savings come from the reduced maintenance and increased lifespan of an electric motor, which has a 10,000-hour time between replacement as compared to a piston engine with a 2,000-hour time between overhaul.
If the economics hold up, with an advertised endurance of three hours from a single charge, the Sun Flyer two-seat trainer might be the perfect platform for creating pilots of the future.
On the other end of the spectrum, government and industry giants such as NASA, Boeing, and Airbus are also looking at electrically powered passenger carrying airplanes as an alternative to Jet-A powered engines.
No matter the application, safety will always be a strong selling point for electric aircraft. Piston powered airplane engines have in excess of 200 moving parts, each a potential point of failure. An electric motor has only one moving part. It doesn’t need oil, gas, or any other explosive dinosaur juice to run.
Electric motors don’t produce any emissions, so they are environmentally friendly and the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning to passengers is eliminated.
Additionally, reliability is vastly improved over piston engines. Electric engine reliability is as good or better than turbine engines so they don’t fail anywhere near as often as piston engines. To operate an electric motor safely, pilots don’t have to understand the intricacies of turbos, stoichiometric mixture ratios, or the complicated theory of internal combustion.
Next is range and infrastructure, and they go hand in hand. Currently this is the weakest link in the chain for electric aircraft, especially if they are going to be used to travel.
Currently there are no electric fast charging stations on the flight lines at airports or FBOs. So, the best a pilot can hope for is an extension cord and a hospitable FBO that’ll allow them to plug in to receive a “slow charge.”
But as we’ve seen with automotive adoption, if there’s demand, the infrastructure will follow as evidenced by nearly 20,000 fast charging stations for cars in the United States today. Luckily fleets of electric training aircraft aren’t limited by a need for long distance travel since most flights tend to occur near a single base of operations.
Some flight schools are starting to take notice. One well known school, Spartan College of Aeronautics, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, holds deposits for 25 of the first Sun Flyers produced to be used in its flight training department, showing that some businesses are already seeing the advantages.
The future of general aviation is certainly evolving and only time will tell if electrically powered airplanes are the wave of the future or just another idea that will be relegated to the scrap heap of ideas that never caught on.
More than anything else, economics will drive future development and the market adoption of electric aircraft. No one can argue that learning to fly is prohibitively expensive. The results are reflected in the total number of private pilots, which has shrunk from more than 300,000 to less than 195,000 in the past 30 years.
If electric aircraft can realize their potential, dramatically bring costs down and provide a viable platform for training pilots, the future might be bright.
One thing is for sure, the demand for airline pilot training continues to grow, and if electric airplane can fill this need, electrically powered trainers might soon become the Teslas of the sky.