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This Company Is Using Vintage Seaplanes in Their Quest to Become the First All-Electric Airline

Vancouver-based Harbour Air will soon outfit its classic seaplanes with battery-powered aviation motors

(Harbour Air)
smithsonian.com

This summer, a Washington-based company will remove the motor of a iconic six-seat, single-propeller seaplane originally flown in 1947 and replace it with a 750 horsepower electric motor. It’s part of a regional airline’s plan to ditch fossil fuel and switch to an entirely electric-powered fleet of aircraft.

The Canadian airline Harbour Air, which oversees 30,000 regional flights and serves 500,000 passengers per year, announced in March that it’s partnering with magniX, a Seattle-area engine company that builds electric propulsion for aircraft, to retrofit its 42 seaplanes with new electric motors.

Harbour Air flies 12 scheduled routes, including flights to Seattle, but most of its routes are quick hops under 100 miles to nearby islands and cities in the region. That makes it a great candidate for the first generation of electric aviation motors, which have a limited range.

“In 2018, 75 percent of worldwide airline flights were 1,000 miles or less in range. With magniX’s new propulsion systems coupled with emerging battery capabilities, we see tremendous potential for electric aviation to transform this heavily trafficked ‘middle mile’ range,” magniX CEO Roei Ganzarski says in a statement.

The new electric engine will give the plane, called a De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver, a flight time of about 30 minutes with 30 minutes of reserve, which should be enough to complete most of Harbour’s short routes, according to Eric C. Evarts at Green Car Reports.

The company will test out the electro-Beaver before converting other planes in its fleet. Eventually, report Evarts, the company hopes magniX can produce an engine capable of flying its 18-passenger, twin-engine De Havilland DHC-6-200 Twin Otters for the 45-minute flight to Seattle.

Vox’s Umfair Irfan reports that with its short flights, Harbour Air is the perfect airline for electrification because converting their Beavers and Otters to battery power can be done with tweaks to existing technology.

“We are in this rather unique position of having short stage lengths and single-engine aircraft that require a lot less energy [than larger planes],” Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall says. “We started doing some math and working with some engineers and figured out that it was actually entirely doable with the technology that exists today, although with a limited range and limited payload.”

Beside reducing emissions, there are other benefits as well. While a traditional engine costs $300 to $400 per hour to operate and requires lots of maintenance, Irfan reports that electric engines are projected to cost just $12 per hour to operate.

The future for short battery-powered flights is pretty bright. The idea of vertical take-off air taxis that could zoom above rush-hour traffic is being looked at by several companies.

But replacing long-haul jet engines with battery power is another story. While the Solar Impulse 2 demonstrated that a solar-powered plane could make it around the world in 2016, the superlight aircraft could only carry one passenger. In another article for Vox, Irfan reports that current batteries have nowhere near the energy of dense, liquid jet fuel. Without a breakthrough and with the current rate of battery improvements, it’s unlikely researchers will produce a battery powerful enough to allow a jetliner loaded with people or FedEx packages to take off until the middle of the century.

Hopefully, the transition to e-planes will happen more quickly than that. According to the European Commission, by 2050 emissions from air travel could spike 300 to 700 percent from current levels.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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