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Electric planes, once a fantasy, are beginning to take to the skies

Electric planes, once a fantasy, are beginning to take to the skies

Chris Caputo stood on the tarmac at Burlington International Airport in Vermont in early October and looked at the clouds in the distance. He had flown military and commercial aircraft over a long career, accumulating thousands of flying hours, but the journey he was about to embark on would be very different.

This is because the plane Mr. Caputo would fly is battery powered. Over the next 16 days, he and his colleagues flew the plane, a CX300 built by his employer, Beta Technologies, around the East Coast. They would make nearly two dozen stops to rest and recharge, flying through congested airspace in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities.

When the trip ended in Florida, Beta turned the plane over to the Air Force, which will experiment with it for the next few months. The trip offered a vision of what aviation could look like years from now: one in which the skies are filled with planes that don’t emit the greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the Earth.

“We’re doing really meaningful work for our state, our country and the planet,” Caputo said. “It’s hard not to want to be a part of this.”

For most of aviation history, electric airplanes have been little more than a fantasy. But technological advances, particularly in batteries, and billions of dollars in investment have helped make short-haul electric air travel feasible and, its backers hope, commercially viable.

Beta, which is privately held, has raised more than $800 million from investors including Fidelity, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and private equity firm TPG Capital. The company employs about 600 people, mostly in Vermont, and recently finished building a factory in Burlington where it plans to mass produce its planes, which have not yet been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The first will be the CX300, a sleek, futuristic aircraft with a 50-foot wingspan, large curved windows and a rear propeller. That plane is designed to carry about 1,250 pounds of cargo and will be followed shortly thereafter by the A250, which shares about 80 percent of the CX300’s design and is equipped with lift rotors for taking off and landing like a helicopter. Both planes, which Beta markets as Alia, will eventually carry passengers, the company says.

Beta is one of many companies working in electric aviation. In California, Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are developing battery-powered planes capable of vertical flight that they say will carry a handful of passengers short distances. These companies have sponsors such as Toyota, Stellantis, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and large investment firms. Established manufacturers such as Airbus, Boeing and Embraer are also working on electric aircraft.

The US government has also rallied behind the industry. The FAA aims to support aircraft operations using new means of propulsion at scale in one or more locations by 2028. And the Air Force is awarding contracts and testing vehicles, including Beta’s CX300 and an aircraft Joby delivered to the Edwards Air Force Base in California in September.

Beta’s plane is not as large and powerful as the planes Caputo flew for the Air Force, Air National Guard or Delta. But what it lacks in weight it makes up for in charm, he said, noting that the plane is incredibly quiet and responsive, making flying a pleasure.

“You are almost one with the airplane,” Caputo said, later adding: “You can hear and feel the air passing over the flight control surfaces. “We wear helmets now because it’s experimental and safety is paramount, but we can literally take our helmets off on the plane and just talk to each other.”

Caputo said the CX300 and other electric planes could open up new opportunities, such as better connecting rural areas that have little or no direct air service.

Beta’s plane has flown up to 386 miles on a single charge, but the company said it expects its customers to generally use it for trips of 100 to 150 miles. The plane’s trip to Florida was permitted under limited authority granted by the FAA.

In addition to producing no emissions, electric aircraft are designed to be easier to operate and maintain than conventional helicopters and airplanes. But they are not expected to take to the skies in large numbers for years. Initially, your trips are likely to be short: from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport, for example, or from Burlington to Syracuse, New York.

Modern batteries can handle limited range and weight. As a result, the planes they power generally can only carry a handful of passengers, or the equivalent cargo.

From the start, electric planes are expected to compete primarily with helicopters, cars and trucks. In cities, widespread flights will not be possible without expanded infrastructure, such as vertical takeoff and landing sites, and public support. The cost of producing such planes will also be high at first, limiting their use to the wealthy and to critical services such as medical evacuations, experts said.

In some ways, the challenge and promise of electric aviation today is like that of the automobile in the early 20th century, said Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aviation consulting firm.

“There were several hundred manufacturers around the world, all with their own unique approaches to making these machines, but there were no roads, there were no traffic lights, there was no insurance,” he said. But, he added, the industry eventually found its way. “Things calmed down 20 years later, and eventually costs came down and winners emerged. And it changed the way things were done, the way people lived.”

Beta founder Kyle Clark agrees with those concerns, which is why he says Beta has taken a more methodical approach.

“I get it, the industry has a trust problem,” he said. “It’s too much change, too fast, in an industry that has an exceptionally high level of safety.”

The company plans to first obtain FAA certification next year for an engine it has developed, followed by approval of its first and second aircraft in the following years. The CX300 will use tracks to move cargo, avoiding the need for new infrastructure, Clark said.

According to Beta, that approach has been supported by several customers, including shipping giant UPS and United Therapeutics, which plans to use the vehicles to transport organs for transplants. Bristow Group, another customer, plans to use the plane the same way it uses helicopters today, to transport goods and people to offshore energy facilities, conduct search and rescue missions for governments and for other purposes.

Bristow, which is working with eight companies developing next-generation aircraft, expects the vehicles to create new opportunities because they are quieter than helicopters and are expected to be 60 to 70 percent cheaper to operate, according to David Stepanek. , executive vice president of Bristow.

In addition to building planes, Beta is establishing a network of chargers that can power its planes, as well as cars, trucks and other vehicles. More than a dozen have been installed, including one at the Air Force facility in Florida, making it the The Army’s first electric aircraft charging station..

The company also built a prototype landing site for planes capable of vertical flight, which sits atop repurposed shipping containers, which house energy storage and a small living space for pilots to rest between trips.

The day Beta’s plane left Burlington in October, Caputo flew it on two legs and arrived at dusk at Griffiss International Airport in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, near where he grew up. He ordered Italian food for the Beta team at a restaurant he used to frequent with his family, and his mother drove to see the plane in person for the first time. The next morning, he took the plane to Syracuse, New York, and handed it over to his colleagues, who would fly it the rest of the way.

Much of the popular debate about electric planes revolves around the idea that they will effectively be used as flying cars to ferry people around big cities. However, in the near future, they will most likely be used to transport goods and passengers outside of dense urban areas, in places like upstate New York and Vermont.

“To me, it will have a really significant impact on the way we move organs, goods and services,” he said, “and reconnect rural areas of America that I think are often forgotten.”

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John C. Johnson

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