Airplane designers say the electric vehicle revolution will soon be coming to commercial aircraft, and Ravn Alaska plans to be on the leading edge.
The small company, created after its predecessor filed for bankruptcy last year, has signed a letter of intent to acquire 50 aircraft from Airflow, a new California company that is designing hybrid-electric aircraft.
Current design plans call for a nine-seat hybrid-electric plane with a 500-mile range that can take off and land on short runways with larger payloads than today’s small planes in Alaska can carry, said Rob McKinney, Ravn’s chief executive.
“Alaska is the perfect place to adopt this technology,” McKinney said Friday.
Airflow hopes to have its planes approved by federal regulators and ready to fly by 2025.
The company is not disclosing the terms of its deal with Ravn, said Marc Ausman, Airflow’s chief executive.
But the agreement has pushed Airflow’s total orders, from Ravn and other companies, to $200 million, Airflow announced in a statement earlier this month.
Ausman said other Alaska companies have signed up with Airflow to purchase its aircraft. He declined to disclose their names, at the companies’ request, he said.
McKinney said the terms of the deal could change, and Ravn has not yet paid for the aircraft.
The planes would be much smaller than the 10 Dash 8-100s, which seat 37 passengers each, that Ravn currently operates. With the new planes, Ravn could replace the smaller planes it once operated before the bankruptcy of RavnAir Group, allowing it to reach more Alaska communities, McKinney said.
Unlike the gas-fueled Dash 8-100s, which are equipped with two large propellers, the hybrid-electric plane would run 10 smaller propellers spread along the wing, according to Airflow plans. That would move enough air over the wing to quickly get the plane off the ground, McKinney said.
The hybrid planes will save money, and not just on fuel, he said. They would require far less maintenance than a turbine engine that needs to be frequently overhauled, sometimes every 18 months at a cost of $400,000, he said.
Electric aircraft are the future of aviation and can improve service in Alaska communities, McKinney said.
“It’s good thing for the environment and for smaller communities as well,” he said.
Paul Herrick, director of the Aviation Technology Division at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said industry observers are watching to see how quickly hybrid-electric and electric planes will become part of commercial aviation.
He said the change from traditional engines could be incremental.
“Technologies like this are evolutionary and not always revolutionary,” he said.
A hybrid approach will be a good transition to electric aircraft, since the diesel engine can take over if the electric motor fails, providing a measure of safety.
“Just my opinion, but I think the hybrid system would prove up the technology as we move to a fully (electric) system,” he said.
Airflow is testing model aircraft and is building a larger test plane that will seat a pilot, Ausman said.
The hybrid-electric plane will be a stepping stone to a fully electric plane, he said. Think of it like going from Toyota’s hybrid Prius to Tesla’s electric cars, he said.
He said the plane’s 10 smaller propellers will have safety benefits. If one fails, several others will be able to carry the load, he said.
They will also be quieter, he said.
He said Airflow has been working on the concept for a year. Another four years will be enough to complete it and receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“We are at the cusp of a new revolution in aviation where we can build aircraft with much better capability than traditional aircraft,” he said.