A small Denver, Colorado, manufacturer has rolled out the first prototype of a new all-electric aircraft, suggesting that the same revolution currently sweeping through the auto industry may soon become airborne.
The Sun Flyer, the brainchild of engineer and pilot George Bye and his Aero Electric Aircraft Corp. (AEAC), is designed to be the perfect training aircraft with three hours of endurance and a 30-minute recharging time.
The change could very soon have profound effects on general aviation – a term for the world of private and non-airline aviation – and, one day, proper airlines.
Energy costs for an hour of flight training could be as little as $1, while maintenance costs on an engine with a single moving part could be significantly lower, Bye told Business Insider.
The aircraft has yet to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, a long, exhaustive process that Bye believes will be completed within three years.
He also estimates that the final unit cost will initially be about $250,000 per aircraft.
That may sound like a lot for a small, two-seat aircraft, but a new, gasoline-powered Cessna 172 – long the standard in flight training – costs around $300,000, and most flight schools will charge more than $100 per hour for renting one and at least $30 per hour for instruction.
An electric power plant with effectively one moving part should also have dramatically lower maintenance costs than a traditional, gasoline-powered engine of more than 1,000 components, Bye said.
Tom Haines, editor-in-chief of AOPA Pilot, told Business Insider that a revolution in pilot training was long overdue.
“If it’s truly that inexpensive, it could be a real pivotal moment in general aviation at a time when we really need it,” Haines said.
He continued: “The pilot population has been dwindling for so long, and it would be nice to have something new to show to people who express an interest in aviation and get turned off by the cost.”
In fact, pilot shortages have plagued the industry for the past few years, and recently forced regional airline Republic Airways to declare bankruptcy when it could not fill its cockpits and several major airlines to begin training their own pilots in-house.
Electric aircraft like Bye’s Sun Flyer could therefore have an immediate effect on the airline industry, though the time when the technology makes it into airliners might also not be very far away.
European airline manufacturer Airbus has already entered a partnership with engineering and technology company Siemens to research electric propulsion.
“We believe that by 2030 passenger aircraft below 100 seats could be propelled by hybrid propulsion systems,” Tom Enders, CEO of Airbus Group, said in a press release in April.
At a conference in Germany that same month, Siemens unveiled an electric power unit mounted to an Extra EA-330, a small, two-seat aerobatic trainer aircraft.
The company believes that the technology can very soon be scaled up to include multiple-passenger aircraft.
“We’ll probably look back in some years, maybe by 2030, and wonder, ‘What took so long?'” Haines of AOPA said.