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Electric aircraft stretch solar legs, training delayed

While many assumed that battery-powered aircraft would remain shackled to the traffic pattern for years to come, the recent flights of up to 38 nautical miles at a time, hopscotching between airports along California’s San Joaquin Valley added up to 228 miles.

Nearly five years after pilot and AOPA member Joseph Oldham described his plan to electrify flight training in California’s San Joaquin Valley starting with four Pipistrel Alpha Electro aircraft, he is still waiting for the FAA to approve of teaching students to fly in those very aircraft.

Many of those same airplanes are being flown by students with instructors in Europe and Australia, along with newer models. But Oldham’s vision to do the same ran straight into a regulatory roadblock that can be traced to a single word: reciprocating. That is an inescapable part of what defines a light sport aircraft: having a single reciprocating engine.

While waiting, Oldham has probably accumulated more hours in the two-seat electric airplane (about 220) than any other pilot in the United States since four Alpha Electros arrived from Europe in 2018 to help him fulfill a vision of providing low-cost flight training to pilots whose aspirations exceed their means. His total time in Alpha Electros includes 100 hours of endurance testing Oldham flew to support a petition submitted to the FAA in September 2019 for an exemption that would allow the factory-built electric airplanes to receive special light sport aircraft (SLSA) airworthiness certificates and be used for flight training.

That was, he said in a telephone interview, “supposed to have been a 120-day process.”

Public comments on the petition filed by the California cities of Mendota and Reedley were overwhelmingly supportive. Oldham said the FAA dispatched engineers and a test pilot who spent three days flying the Alpha Electro.

“We were optimistic,” Oldham said. But optimism faded and frustration has mounted, with no further word from the FAA since the engineers and test pilot visited. “Everything just went dark, it just went black.”

Oldham has not exactly been sitting on his hands, but he confessed that the experience of waiting two years for permission to train students in modern aircraft with emergency parachutes has been “a major frustration.”

The four aircraft were purchased by the Sustainable Aviation Project, a grant-funded collaboration of municipal governments and the CALSTART San Joaquin Valley Clean Transportation Center, which Oldham previously led. They (still) have experimental-exhibition airworthiness certificates. They can be flown by Oldham and other certificated pilots for research and development, and exhibitions like the series of flights in July between Fresno, Madera, Modesto, and Lodi, California, that began July 14 and concluded back in Fresno July 16 having crossed 228 nautical miles of some of the most productive farmland on the planet.

(Another footnote of frustration: Oldham had hoped to fly as far north as Sacramento, the state capital, but was unable to secure permission to set up a temporary solar charging station at an airport in the city.)

The EV ARC solar charging station was designed by Beam Global to charge all kinds of electric vehicles. The only modification required to charge Pipistrel Alpha Electro batteries was a plug swap. Photo courtesy of Beam Global.

The scorching summer heat that has spawned massive wildfires was also an obstacle for electric aviation pioneers to contend with: Aircraft batteries must be kept relatively cool during recharging.

“When they’re charging, they build up heat,” Oldham explained. Batteries also heat up during flight, and Oldham said he typically lands with the batteries only a few degrees cooler than their temperature limit. The challenge of recharging hot batteries on a hot ramp proved easier to overcome than bureaucratic inertia: Oldham purchased an air conditioner online and rigged it with ducts typically used for clothes dryer exhaust vents, and mounting hardware, to cool the battery compartment during charging.

Oldham has not been without allies in his yearslong quest to make electric aviation practical. One that stepped up to help with the July flights is Beam Global, a San Diego company that builds solar charging stations for electric vehicles. Oldham said that while Beam’s EV ARC charging station has a rather permanent appearance in pictures, the 12,500-pound unit including a stand, solar array, and connecting equipment folds up for transport on a trailer. That allowed Oldham to plan charging stops along the route north to Sacramento, or, as it turned out, to Lodi, and back.

‘The airplane performed perfectly’

The road show supporting Oldham’s flights in the Alpha Electro included trucks that delivered Beam Global’s off-grid charging stations to various airports, and another vehicle to carry two of the portable battery chargers supplied by Pipistrel, along with the air conditioner. Beam CEO Desmond Wheatley rode an electric motorcycle along the route, and plugged it into the same charging stations that also provided enough amps to run the air conditioner and charge the aircraft battery at the same time. Oldham said that the 24 amps available did not allow the Pipistrel charger to be dialed up to 32 amps, much less its 50-amp maximum rate, so he had to make do with 16 amps, and wait a little longer to top off the aircraft at each stop. Thus, a task that can be done in a little more than an hour when connected to the electrical grid took two or three hours at each stop.

Notwithstanding that limitation, “It was really pretty cool,” Oldham said, to watch all that solar power captured and returned to batteries while running a 6,000-Btu air conditioner at the same time.

The flights were all planned to wrap up by 1 p.m. and avoid the worst of the afternoon heat, Oldham said. He flew about 30 miles at a time, typically landing with more than 50 percent charge, comfortably more than the required 30-minute VFR reserve, even on the longest leg he flew, a 38-nautical-mile flight from Modesto City-County-Harry Sham Field to Lodi Airport. There were zero aeronautical surprises along the way, Oldham said. “The airplane performed perfectly.”

While Beam Global billed the flight in press releases as a world record, no such record has been recognized, and Oldham said it would require some stipulation in any case. He has compared notes with many fellow electric aviation pioneers in online groups of Pipistrel owners, including an Australian team that recently completed a 770-nautical-mile Outback transit in their own Alpha Electro. That expedition was supported by a diesel generator carried by truck from stop to stop, along with a Cessna 182 with the rear seat removed to facilitate carrying the Pipistrel charger, which weighs about 200 pounds. “They were really innovative,” Oldham said.

One critical difference between aeronautical regulations in Australia and the United States boils down to that one word, “reciprocating,” which is contained in the definition of “light sport aircraft” in the FARs, but Australia opted to specify “non-turbine” instead of “reciprocating.” This sped the approval process considerably when the first Alpha Electros arrived in Australia, Oldham noted. “It went right into flight training operations.”

Pipistrel presumably hopes to see its electric trainers, including the more recent Velis Electro, which was certified by European regulators in 2020, train a new generation of pilots, though the FAA has yet to certify any electric aircraft under the light sport rules, or standard category. That could change relatively soon. Bye Aerospace in Colorado is working to certify its own two-seat electric trainer. Joby Aviation, one of the well-funded startups seeking to bring electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft to market, announced in February that the FAA has agreed to modify the Part 23 certification process to allow for eVTOL certification.

Approving an electric LSA may take a little longer. Oldham said the FAA Modernization of Special Airworthiness Certificates (MOSAIC) project, a major overhaul of LSA regulations, might include striking “reciprocating” from the definition—perhaps sometime in 2023.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization that Oldham created in 2018 to give pilots affordable access to electric aircraft for training, New Vision Aviation, is burning avgas in a 1961 Cessna 172B Skyhawk while waiting for the FAA to break its long silence on the petition.

“We’re using the Skyhawk,” Oldham said.

Pipistrel reported brisk sales of the Velis Electro two-seater in January, along with news that the company was hiring more staff to keep up with international orders. Pipistrel Public Relations Manager Taja Boscarol wrote in an email responding to a recent inquiry that the word “reciprocating” remains a stumbling block that leaves “no way to register any” electric aircraft as light sport aircraft.

“We all hope that FAA will soon realize the new reality in aviation and change this old rule to allow the electric aircraft to fly commercially and train pilots on them,” Boscarol wrote.

‘We’ve got to build that’

Oldham has been working while he waits to solve another challenge likely to slow the adoption of electric aviation: a lack of qualified mechanics, as well as pilots trained in the “care and feeding” of electric aircraft.

New Vision Aviation is in position to operate the flight training portion of a program that could begin preparing next-generation aviators and aviation mechanics in the fall of 2022, pending approval by the Fresno Unified School District, among the largest in California with about 74,000 students.

Reedley College, a community college in Reedley, California, is another partner in the pending program that will give Fresno high school students (who will be learning with the AOPA You Can Fly High School Curriculum) credit toward Reedley’s two-year flight science degree program. Oldham said an aviation maintenance technician training component will also be built into this education collaboration.

“The whole idea is we build a pipeline of students coming out of the high school” who will be ready for aviation careers. Eventually, Oldham said, that should include careers in electric aviation, people to fill the skills and knowledge gaps in an industry inexperienced with electric propulsion.

“There’s nothing in the regs right now about how do you train A&Ps … IAs what to do (with electric aircraft),” Oldham said. “There’s no training program yet for that.”

Oldham said governments and educators across the country will need to collaborate to change that, or else the first electric airplanes to actually reach flight school lines in the United States could wind up grounded when their first 100-hour inspection is due, if not sooner. The infrastructure required to support electric aviation at scale requires more than charging stations, and as Oldham now knows all too well, getting the airplanes on the ramp is only the beginning.

“We’ve got to build that,” Oldham said of the electric aviation infrastructure, and the pipeline of skilled professionals it will require. “But we’ve got to build that with the FAA.”

Meanwhile, in June, Oldham worked with fellow pilots to craft a kind of test flight for the Fresno technical education pathway, a five-day summer camp that was among many similar programs offered to students, but the only camp focused on aviation. The 17 participating students were also the only summer camp group to post perfect attendance, Oldham said, and really took to the experiences that included building and flying model rockets, flying radio control aircraft, visiting the California Air National Guard facility in Fresno, home to the 144th Fighter Wing and its F–15 Eagles, and getting their first stick time in simulators of full-scale aircraft. The program culminated in an EAA Young Eagles flight for each.

“None of them had any experience with aviation when they came in the door,” Oldham said. With many local pilots participating in the camp’s flight finale, “we had enough airplanes that each student that wanted to fly got a chance to fly in the right seat.”

Oldham said the pilots were used to Young Eagles being a bit uncomfortable in the airplane, not always eager to try their own hands on the controls, but the campers, primed with a few lessons in a simulator, shined in that department.

“They were coordinated. They knew what they were doing,” Oldham said. “It was just so cool to watch them.”

None of the kids flew an electric airplane, but electric airplanes, despite having a lot of idle time since they arrived in 2018, played a role nonetheless.

“The Electros have been worth it … in spite of all of the challenges,” Oldham said. “The worth is, we’ve got the attention of a lot of people that the valley really is a good place to train a lot of pilots.”

Four Pipistrel Alpha Electros imported to California in 2018 remain unavailable for flight training because of their experimental airworthiness certificates. Photo by Douglass Fletcher Sisk, courtesy of the Sustainable Aviation Project.

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