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.
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.
“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.
McDougall was also the only one aboard the e-plane, as the flight’s permit only allowed for one test pilot.
“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.
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.
Holding said along with potential long-term fuel savings, electric motors are far simpler than combustion engines and will be far cheaper to maintain.
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.
It is also looking at a possible twin-motor plane.
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.