First Commercial Electric-Powered Flight

By David Hopwood | December 14, 2019

Alright it was only 15 minutes, but it’s a start…

Earlier this month a modified DHC-2 made the first commercial flight using only lithium battery power. The aircraft was powered by an Australian magniX 750 horsepower (560kW) magni500 motor and flew for 15 minutes out of the Harbour Air Seaplanes terminal in Richmond (YVR South) on the Fraser River, near Vancouver.

Electric DHC-2 at YVR South  ©Harbour Air

The technology is in its infancy but seems to hold promise for further commercial applications in the not-too-distant future. Ranges of up to 1500 km seem likely in the mid-term.

Humankind has made one other semi-serious attempt at powering aircraft with fuel other than petroleum. In the late ’40s to early ’60s, both the Americans and Soviet Russians made horrendously expensive efforts at producing a nuclear-powered bomber, which (in theory) would have been able to fly to and from the targets without refuelling. Imagine. The aircraft suffered from an irreconcilable dilemma; a) they would have been incredibly heavy, mostly due to the shielding and if made light enough, b) would have killed the crew.

In 2016 Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg piloted the Solar Impulse 2 around the world using no fuel, using only solar power. But it did make 16 stops and spent more than 23 days in the air. The potential seems limited. Israeli firm Eviation showed a prototype of their ‘Alice’ at the Paris Air Show this year. Expected to enter service in 2022, the manufacturer claims a range of 1000rbourkm, at 3000m with a cruise of 440 km/h. We’ll see.

But Harbour Air’s flight is the real start of the Next Big Thing. Harbour is the world’s largest all-seaplane operator, serving southern British Vancouver in Canada, flying 12 schedules and available for charters. They intend to convert all their aircraft; Beavers, Single & Twin Otters and a Grand Caravan to electric power by 2022, given safety and regulatory approval. The DHC-2 has a range of only 160 kilometres but can serve some of Harbour’s demand.

© Harbour Air/magniX

It’s the battery technology that is currently the limiting factor; motors, generators and controls are all adequate for the task of electric flight.

There are various claims of being very economic (electricity is cheap) quiet (fair enough) and non-polluting. Non-polluting? Well yes, but you’ve got to make the electricity somewhere…

And someone has already called them ‘ePlanes’. Oh dear.

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