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It flew! All-electric seaplane completes milestone first flight near Vancouver

Tom Banse
NW News Network
A de Havilland Beaver floatplane converted to electric battery-powered propulsion prepares to land on the Fraser River in Richmond, British Columbia.

A fully electric seaplane has made its first flight over the mouth of the Fraser River near Vancouver.  The maiden flight represents a milestone in the long process of reducing the aviation industry's emissions, noise and costs by electrifying short-to-medium distance commercial flying.

Several hundred people crowded the riverbank on Tuesday morning to witness what they hoped would be a historic moment. They were not disappointed.

Amid cheers and oohs and ahs, a Harbour Air floatplane converted to battery-powered propulsion lifted off into the day's only sunbreak. The plane flew a short out-and-back leg downriver before landing five minutes later.

"It was much more quiet than I expected it to be," said onlooker Nicki Malcom of Auburn, Washington. "It was great. It was magical.”

"It’s definitely the future," offered Chip Jamison, who came from Portland to see the electric plane he machined parts for. "You can see it with automobiles. Planes are next. It’s right in front of us.”

The test pilot was the only person on board the six-passenger DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver. He was none other than the CEO and founder of Harbour Air, Greg McDougall.

"This thing is a prototype for sure, but it is an amazing airplane," said McDougall at a post-flight press conference. "In every way, it's a high tech piece of equipment, which is kind of ironic considering the airframe the motor is attached to is actually one year younger than me -- so, 62 years old."

Credit Harbour Air
The first flight of the Harbour Air e-Plane was planned as one short loop, which lasted about 5 minutes.

McDougall's seaplane airline teamed up with a Redmond, Washington-based electric motor maker named MagniX to convert the classic de Havilland Beaver. MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski cast the refashioned plane's first flight as a milestone akin to the first jet takeoff.

"Today you witnessed the first shot of the electric aviation revolution," Ganzarski told a hangar full of the two companies' staffs, contractors, media and other celebrants. "Let's start the revolution."

Ganzarski laid out a case for how battery-powered flight offers lower noise, zero pollution and could reduce fuel and maintenance costs.

"Lower operating costs for airlines like Harbour Air, which in turn will mean lower ticket prices for all of you," he said. "Lower operating costs means they can now fly to more destinations that we couldn't fly to before."

It will be awhile before regular folks can book a ticket on a clean, electric seaplane. Aviation regulators first need to evaluate and certify the new propulsion system. McDougall estimated that could take about two years.

Representatives of safety regulator Transport Canada observed the maiden flight and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has been looped in as well.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Landing of the first flight at the Harbour Air seaplane base on the south side of Vancouver International Airport.

Moses Lake, Washington, may be the scene for the next milestones in electric flight. MagniX is working with two other companies to achieve maiden flights next year on two larger airplanes. One is a Cessna Caravan commuter plane converted to battery power in partnership with Seattle-based engineering and flight testing company AeroTEC. MagniX and AeroTEC anticipate a first flight of the electric-powered Caravan in the first half of 2020.

The other plane to watch for is a brand new design named Alice from startup Eviation. The unusual-looking, three-motor airliner with pusher propellers is slated to carry nine passengers. A privately-held, Singapore-based conglomerate named Clermont Group owns both MagniX and Eviation.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
Harbour Air CEO and test pilot Greg McDougall in the company hangar Tuesday with MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski standing over his left shoulder.

McDougall and Ganzarski acknowledged Tuesday that batteries need to improve for this technology to replace jet fuel widely. McDougall said a full charge on the nearly one ton of batteries tucked in the belly of the Harbour Air prototype was good for about 30 minutes of flight or about 100 miles.

The power-to-weight ratio of batteries is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome for electrifying aviation. Ganzarski said Harbour Air is a good match to start the process because its routes from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, the Canadian Gulf Islands, Sunshine Coast and Seattle are short and it mostly flies small, single-engine planes. The airline aspires to become the world's first fossil fuel-free airline.

Meanwhile, the plight of Bothell, Washington-based Zunum Aero shows the path to emissions-free aviation is not easy or cheap. The erstwhile designer of hybrid-electric regional jets laid off nearly all its staff earlier this year when it ran low on money. Airframe and propulsion system development appears to be on pause while the remaining company leadership seeks new investors.

"Like startups often have to do, we have been navigating a challenging period," said Zunum CEO Ashish Kumar in an emailed statement. "However, our team remains committed to a future with electric flight everywhere. We are a group of persistent problem-solvers and are continuing to make progress toward our goal."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.