The first flight of an electric Beaver is in the books. The plane, piloted by Harbour Air president Greg McDougal, a high-time Beaver pilot, flew out of Vancouver for its inaugural trip aloft.
Cool stuff, true. But it’s not what it seems. The news has been misleading, in small part because of the way that Harbour Air is spinning it, but more so because most of the writers covering it don’t get the distinctions that one needs to understand to make sense of the level of meaningfulness of this news. The plane is cool, but it’s not what the general public is being told it is.
Harbour Air’s electric Beaver plane is being billed as the first commercial plane to fly with electric power, which it most assuredly isn’t. The term “commercial” has a specific meaning in aviation terminology. It’s when a flight is being operated for profit. Have all the bake sales you want, but once you start charging for rides, the authorities want to know all about it. Every little bit. What makes a plane a “commercial” plane isn’t anything about what it is but, instead, how it’s used. A Boeing 747 can be operated as a private plane carrying a full load of passengers. You just can’t charge them for the flight.
The Beaver, normally powered by a 450-hp Pratt & Whitney radial piston aircraft engine, has an electric motor installed where the big radial would normally be. The motor, a very powerful electric one, is throttled down to the equivalent of 450 hp to keep the flight behavior roughly comparable to the original.
Harbour Air’s Beaver, a 1956 model, isn’t being operated as a commercial plane at all. It is, in fact, an Experimental category plane, and as such it, can’t carry passengers—period. So let’s get that out of the way. It’s not a commercial plane.
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The second thing is this. It’s not even close to being usable as a commercial plane, were it to get its Canadian and/or US certification for this major modification, and it’s not even close to that point. The back of the plane, where four paying passengers and/or cargo would be, is filled with battery packs, the same type, Harbour Air says, as are used in the US space program. In any case, the current experimental configuration of the plane is a non-starter for commercial operations.
It’s possible the batteries could be installed elsewhere. The endurance of the plane, however, is only 15 minutes, with a short reserve of power, far too short to be certifiable or useful for commercial purposes.
How those problems will be solved is an interesting topic for discussion and speculation. But it won’t happen soon, and it won’t happen cheaply. So for now, the truth is, we’re still far away from the first commercial electric aircraft, though we admit this is a cool research program.