Electric planes, once a fantasy, are starting to take flight

Electric planes, once a fantasy, are starting to take flight

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, logging thousands of flight hours, but the journey he was about to embark on would be very different.

That’s because the plane Mr. Caputo would fly runs on batteries. Over the next 16 days, he and his colleagues flew the plane, a CX300 built by their employer, Beta Technologies, on the East Coast. They would make nearly two dozen stops to rest and recharge, flying through the congested airspace of Boston, New York, Washington and other cities.

Once the trip was completed in Florida, Beta turned the plane over to the Air Force, which will test it over the next few months. The trip offered a vision of what aviation might look like in a few years — a vision in which the skies would be filled with planes that don’t emit greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming the Earth.

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

For most of aviation history, electric planes were just a fantasy. But technological advances, particularly in batteries, and billions of dollars of investment have helped make short-haul electric air travel feasible — and, supporters hope, commercially viable.

Beta, a privately held company, 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 completed construction of 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 tail propeller. That plane is designed to carry about 1,250 pounds of cargo and will be followed soon after 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. The two planes, which Beta markets as Alia, will eventually carry passengers, the company said.

Beta is one of several companies working on 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 benefit from backers like Toyota, Stellantis, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and major investment companies. Well-established manufacturers like Airbus, Boeing and Embraer are also working on electric planes.

The US government has also rallied behind the industry. The FAA aims to support aircraft operations using new means of propulsion on a large 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 which Joby delivered to Edwards Air Force Base in 2028. California in September.

Beta’s plane is not as large and powerful as the jets Mr. 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 it a joy to fly.

“You almost become one with the airplane,” Mr. Caputo said, later adding, “You can kind of hear and feel the air going through the flight control surfaces.” “We’re wearing headsets right now because it’s experimental and safety is paramount, but we can literally take the headsets off on the plane and just talk to each other.”

Mr. 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 traveled up to 386 miles on a single charge, but the company said it expects its customers to typically use it to take trips of 100 to 150 miles. The plane’s travel to Florida was authorized under a limited authorization granted by the FAA.

In addition to producing zero emissions, electric planes are designed to be simpler to operate and maintain than conventional helicopters and planes. But they are not expected to take flight in large numbers for years. Initially, their trips will likely be short – from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport, for example, or from Burlington to Syracuse, New York.

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

Initially, electric planes are expected to compete mainly with helicopters, cars and trucks. In cities, large-scale flights will not be possible without expanded infrastructure such as vertical landing and takeoff sites and public support. The cost of producing such planes will also be high initially, limiting their use to the wealthy and critical services like medical evacuations, experts said.

In some ways, the challenge and promise of electric aviation today resembles that of the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, said Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, a consulting firm. in aviation.

“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” , did he declare. But, he adds, the industry eventually found its way. “Things stabilized 20 years later, costs finally fell and winners emerged. And it changed the way things were done, the way people lived.

Kyle Clark, Beta’s founder, is sensitive to these 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 get FAA certification next year for an engine it developed, then get approval for its first and second planes in the following years. The CX300 will use the runways to move goods, avoiding the need for new infrastructure, Mr Clark said.

This approach has been endorsed by several customers, according to Beta, including shipping giant UPS and United Therapeutics, which plans to use the vehicles to transport organs for transplantation. Bristow Group, another customer, plans to use the aircraft in the same way it uses helicopters today, to transport cargo and people to offshore energy installations, conduct search and rescue missions for governments and for other purposes.

Bristow, who works with eight companies developing next-generation aircraft, expects these 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 Bristol.

In addition to building planes, Beta is building 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 site in Florida, making it the the army’s first electric aircraft charging station.

The company also built a prototype landing site for aircraft capable of vertical flight, which relies on recycled shipping containers, which houses energy storage and a small living space for pilots to rest between trips .

The day Beta’s plane left Burlington in October, Mr. Caputo flew it on two legs and arrived at sunset at Griffiss International Airport in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains near the where he grew up. He ordered Italian food for the Beta team at a restaurant he frequented with his family, and his mother drove out to see the plane in person for the first time. The next morning, he flew the plane to Syracuse, New York, and handed it over to 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 transport people around big cities. In the near future, however, they could just as easily be used to transport cargo and passengers outside of dense urban areas, in places like upstate New York and Vermont.

“To me, this is going to have a really significant impact on how we deliver organs and goods and services,” he said, “and reconnect rural areas of America that I think are often forgotten.”

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David B.Otero

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