An electric aircraft just completed a journey of 1,403 miles
On the morning of Monday, May 23, an electric aircraft took off from Plattsburgh International Airport in eastern New York, near Lake Champlain and the border with Vermont. It then pushed south and west from there. It then took off two more times in New York and flew into Akron, Ohio, the next day. After seven stops in total, it finally landed on Monday, May 30, in Bentonville, Arkansas, completing a start-and-stop journey of 1,403 miles.
The craft is called Alia, and it was created by Beta Technologies, an aviation startup based in Burlington, Vermont. It is powered by a single propeller and two electric motors to propel it through the air. Electric aviation is in its infancy, and the burgeoning industry–which includes other firms like Joby, Wisk, Kitty Hawk, Archer–has generally focused on the idea of using electric aircraft as air taxis, like Ubers in the sky, for travel around cities. Beta CEO Kyle Clark stated that they wanted to show that these aircraft can be more than a vehicle for local transport.
” I think that this type of flight changes the image of electric aviation at a very high-level,” he said.
He says that the “launching point” for their business is to start with a focus on flights for cargo and logistics that span about 150 miles in length. He says, “And we just tried and proved that it is possible to do that, and it can be done over and over again.”
After stopping in Akron, Ohio it flew to Springfield and Bloomington, Indiana before pushing into Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas. The flight legs ranged from about 159 miles to as long as 211, and had an average flight time of around 88 minutes. All told, over the eight days that the mission lasted, the aircraft was in the air for nearly 12 hours.
Two pilots took turns flying the aircraft with Beta: Lochie Ferrier, and Camron Guthrie. The pilot who was not flying the electric plane on each leg took control of the Cessna Caravan, which acted as a chase aircraft.
Guthrie was one of the pilots on the mission. He said that they traveled through “really quiet areas” of the country, which attracted many people. He says that people came out to see the Vermonters and their spaceship. In Ohio, the landing garnered an article in the Springfield News-Sun about the aircraft, which arrived at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport on May 24. The website Electric VTOL News previously reported on part of the aircraft’s journey.
To be clear, the flying machine does not have a spaceship. It’s an electric aircraft with a 50-foot wingspan that The New York Times has referred to as “a flying battery” that has an “exotic, almost whimsical shape.” (The company notes on its website that the plane’s design “takes inspiration from the Arctic tern.”) While Beta and its competitors are designing aircraft that can take off and land vertically from small areas, this particular model did not do that–it took off and landed like a regular airplane, just as it did in March when two Air Force pilots tried flying it.
The journey was also delayed by bad weather in Ohio. After landing in Springfield on Tuesday, May 24, it didn’t take off again until Saturday, May 28, when it flew to Indiana. This multi-leg trip was an opportunity to test a new type of aircraft in real-world conditions. Guthrie states that “We ran into weather and operated in extreme locations. We also tested our charging network.” “There are many things we learned about our design and we’ll put them back in the hopper .”
About charging network: An electric plane produces zero tailpipe emissions, but the juice for its batteries must come from somewhere. Beta claims that they were able recharge the aircraft using four charging stations, including their departure airport in Plattsburgh (New York). (Another charger can be found in Bentonville.) They used a mobile generator that could burn fossil fuel to generate electricity at other locations. Clark says, “We try to minimize it, but we have those provisions and we used them on this flight.”
Ferrier was one of the test pilots. He said that the only issue in charging where and how they did it was the aircraft’s performance, which he claims exceeded their expectations. He says that the charging network was actually able to provide a slightly shorter range than what we are currently using. “The airplane is outperforming the charging network–so, we could have actually used more charges, but we ended-up with a better plane than we expected, so we had to skim some of them.” Shorter flights would have allowed them more time to use their stationary chargers rather than their mobile.
” The charging network is constantly evolving, and we get more chargers online every week,” Clark says.
The permission for this multi-state journey–the aircraft soared through six states in total–came in the form of a market survey certificate from the FAA. It’s not the longest flight on the books for an electric aircraft: between 2015 and 2016, a solar-powered airplane circled the world.
Beta doesn’t intend to operate its own cargo or passenger airline; instead it plans to make the aircraft itself so that companies such as UPS could use it to carry goods.
For now, the Alia aircraft, after flying just over 1,400 miles, remains in Arkansas. It will be at an event called the UpSummit, and then will eventually fly back east.
Read more about the flight below.
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