Electric airplanes, once a fantasy, take to the skies

Electric airplanes, once a fantasy, 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 and logged thousands of flight hours, but the journey he was about to embark on would be very different.

That’s because the airplane that Mr. Caputo will fly runs on batteries. Over the next 16 days, he and his colleagues flew a CX300 aircraft, built by his employer, Beta Technologies, down the East Coast. They would make about two dozen stops to rest and refresh as they flew through crowded airfields in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities.

When the trip ended in Florida, Beta handed the aircraft over to the Air Force, which would conduct experiments on it over the next few months. The trip offered a vision of what aviation might look like years from now — one in which the skies are filled with planes that don’t emit greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the Earth.

“We are doing something really meaningful for our state, our country and the planet,” Mr. Caputo said. “It’s hard not to be a part of it.”

For most of aviation history, electric aircraft have been nothing more than a fantasy. But technological advances, particularly in batteries, and billions of dollars of investment have helped make short-range electric air travel possible — and, its proponents hope, commercially viable.

Beta, which is privately held, has raised more than $800 million from investors such as Fidelity, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and private equity firm TPG Capital. The company employs about 600 people, most of them in Vermont, and recently completed construction of a factory in Burlington where it plans to mass produce its planes, which have not yet been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. Has not been certified by the 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 quickly followed by the A250, which shares about 80 percent of the CX300’s design and is equipped with lift rotors for helicopter-like takeoff and landing. The company says both planes, which Beta markets as Alia, will eventually carry passengers.

Beta is one of several companies working on electric aviation. In California, Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are developing battery-powered aircraft capable of vertical flight that they say will carry a handful of passengers over short distances. Backers of those companies are Toyota, Stellantis, United Airlines, Delta Airlines and large investment companies. Established manufacturers like Airbus, Boeing and Embraer are also working on electric aircraft.

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

Beta’s aircraft are not as large or powerful as the jets that Mr. Caputo flew for the Air Force, the Air National Guard or Delta. But what it lacks in heaviness it makes up for in charm, he said, noting that the airplane is incredibly quiet and responsive, making it a joy to fly.

“You’re almost at one with the plane,” Mr. Caputo said later: “You can hear and feel the air moving across the flight control surfaces. We wear helmets now because it’s experimental and safety is paramount, But we can literally take the helmet off on the plane and just talk to each other.

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

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

In addition to producing no emissions, electric planes are designed to be easier to operate and maintain than traditional helicopters and planes. But they are not expected to take to the skies in large numbers for years. Initially, their trips are likely to be short – for example from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport, or from Burlington to Syracuse, NY.

Modern batteries can support limited range and weight. As a result, the aircraft they operate can typically carry only a handful of passengers, or an equivalent load in cargo.

Initially, electric planes are expected to compete primarily with helicopters and cars and trucks. In cities, widespread flights will not be possible without expanded infrastructure and public support, such as vertical landing and takeoff sites. Experts say that the initial cost of manufacturing such aircraft will also be high, due to which their use will be limited to affluent people and important services like medical evacuation.

In some ways, the challenge and promise of electric aviation today are like those of the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, said Kevin Michaels, managing director of aviation consulting firm Aerodynamic Advisory.

“You had several hundred manufacturers around the world, all with their own unique approaches to making these machines, but you didn’t have roads, you didn’t have traffic lights, you didn’t have insurance,” he said. . But, he adds, the industry eventually got its way. “After 20 years things calmed down, and costs eventually came down, and winners emerged. And it changed the way people worked, the way people lived.”

Beta founder Kyle Clark is aware of those concerns, which is why he says Beta has taken a more systematic approach.

“I get it, the industry has a trust issue,” he said. “In an industry that has exceptionally high standards of safety, this is too much change, too quickly.”

The company plans to first win FAA certification next year for the motor it developed, followed by approval of its first and second aircraft in the following years. Mr Clarke said the CX300 would use the runway to move cargo, avoiding the need for new infrastructure.

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

Bristow, who is working with eight companies developing the next generation of 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 executive vice president David Stepanek Bristow.

In addition to building aircraft, Beta is installing 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 an Air Force site in Florida, making it Army’s first electric aircraft charging station,

The company has also built a prototype landing site for an aircraft capable of vertical flight, located atop repurposed shipping containers, with energy storage and a small living space for pilots to rest between trips.

The day Beta’s plane took off from Burlington in October, Mr. Caputo flew it on two legs, arriving at sunset at Griffiss International Airport in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, where he grew up. He ordered Italian food for the Beta team from a restaurant he often visited with his family, and his mother flew out to see the aircraft in person for the first time. The next morning, he flew the plane to Syracuse, NY, and handed it over to his colleagues who would fly it the rest of the way.

Much of the popular discussion about electric planes revolves around the idea that they would be used effectively as flying cars to lure people to big cities. However, in the near future, they could potentially be used to carry freight and passengers outside dense urban areas, in places like upstate New York and Vermont.

“To me, this will have a really meaningful impact on how we move organs and goods and services,” he said, “and reconnect rural parts of America that I think are often forgotten.”

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