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World’s first electric seaplane makes maiden flight, B.C. company makes history

Canadian seaplane airline launches world’s first commercial electric plane
WATCH ABOVE: B.C.-based seaplane airline Harbour Air has done a successful test flight of a retrofitted, all-electric commercial seaplane - the first for the industry and the world. Robin Gill explains what the company is hoping for, and the precedent it could set for the future of air travel.

A small crowd gathered on the banks of the Fraser River in Richmond, B.C. Tuesday morning to watch history be made.

A seaplane company based in the Vancouver suburb, using technology from a Seattle engineering firm, successfully took the first step towards the world’s first all-electric commercial airline.

READ MORE: Vancouver seaplane company to test world’s first all-electric commercial aircraft

Harbour Air founder CEO Greg McDougall strapped into the De Havilland Beaver retrofitted with a 750-horsepower magniX electric motor Tuesday morning for the aircraft’s maiden flight.

Electric flight history made in B.C.
Electric flight history made in B.C.

“We had no way of knowing really exactly how the aircraft was going to perform until we actually flew it, and that was the first real time it had flown,” said McDougall.

“It was amazing.”

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McDougall was also the only one aboard the e-plane, as the flight’s permit only allowed for one test pilot.

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Harbour Air plane with electric engine takes flight in Richmond
Harbour Air plane with electric engine takes flight in Richmond

“This thing is a prototype for sure, but it’s an amazing airplane and in every way it’s a high-tech piece of equipment,” said McDougall.

“Which is kind of ironic considering the airframe it’s attached to is actually one year younger than me, so 62 years old.”

The test was brief: McDougall only flew for about 16 kilometres. But his prototype’s electric motor and powerful lithium-ion batteries can power flights about 10 times longer, says Harbour Air.

READ MORE: All-electric aviation? It’s closer than you may think

Harbour Air developing “zero-emission” seaplanes
Harbour Air developing “zero-emission” seaplanes

Stephen Holding, a pilot and the chief instructor at BCIT aviation technical programs, said there’s no doubt that technology would cost companies more up front.

“Batteries are expensive. They’ve come down radically in the last 10 years. At some point they will be the same price as fuel,” he said.

“The difference is we don’t have the same power to weight [ratio] that gasoline or jet fuel has in our batteries.”

Holding said along with potential long-term fuel savings, electric motors are far simpler than combustion engines and will be far cheaper to maintain.

READ MORE: Harbour Air to switch to battery-powered aircraft

Harbour Air says its business model, which mostly covers short-distance flights, is what makes the electric conversion possible. However, it says as the technology improves, the planes could be used for longer flights.

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It is also looking at a possible twin-motor plane.

Harbour Air’s plan to move to all electric planes
Harbour Air’s plan to move to all electric planes

The company began plans to convert its fleet to electric aircraft 11 months ago.

Harbour Air says it will likely be more than two years before the new planes are cleared to fly with passengers.

Harbour Air adds it hopes converting the fleet will allow the company to become carbon-neutral, while delivering significant savings on fuel and maintenance.