Electric flight

I grew up with an ear for a particular airplane engine. Although my father had hours and hours of flight behind much smaller engines, such as the Continental C90 flat-four or a Lycoming 150 in Piper Super Cubs, the engines that made music in my ears were the two Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior engines in our Beech C45. That twin beech was the airplane of my dreams when I was a kid. It also was the airplane in which my father flew on longer trips that took him away from home for several days. When I heard the sound of those engines low over town, I knew that dad was home. I even learned to note the sound of the engines as he synchronized them after take off.

There are still a few old airplanes flying around with Pratt 985s. There were a few Stearman. The old biplane trainers originally came with a Continental radial and a few were retrofitted with Jacobs engines, but the ultimate upgrade was to the 450 hp R-985. The R-985 also was the standard engine on the DeHavilland DHC-2 Beaver.

A few years ago we were in Vancouver, British Columbia, watching the float planes taking off and landing from the harbor. One of the big operators of sightseeing flights was Harbor Air. They had a fleet that, at the time, was mostly De Havilland Beavers and Otters that had been re-engined with Pratt & Whitney PT6 turboprop engines. The jet engines have a high pitched whine that just doesn’t sound the way I think a Beaver ought to sound. The new engines, however, are extending the life of these venerable old airplanes. Float plane work is hard on engines and airframes and Harbor Air has a lot of high-hour airplanes. They also have the capacity to completely rebuild a De Havilland Beaver from the ground up to make it as good as a new airplane. They put shiny paint jobs on their airplanes to encourage the tourists.

At the time, I said to myself, when I have the time and the money, I’m going to go for a ride on one of those Beavers, but I want to make sure that it is behind a R-985. I want to hear the roar of that old radial piston engine a few more times in this lifetime.

I guess I’d better hurry if I want to do that. The world is changing.

Yesterday, in what they claim is the first such commercial flight, Harbor made the first seaplane flight from their Vancouver base in a Beaver that was outfitted with a 750-horsepower magni500 electric propulsion system. The mother, manufactured by Australian company magnet is roughly the same horsepower as the turboprop engines that were dominating the Harbor Air fleet. It will take a while for the airplane and engine combination to become fully certified by Canadian officials, but it was an historic flight.

There are a few compromises with the electric propulsion system. The lithium ion batteries used are heavy, reducing the amount of weight that the plane can fly. the plane, however, does not have to carry any liquid jet fuel, so that weight is saved. And the range of the plane, with reserves, is only about 100 miles, quite a bit less than with either of the other engines. Battery technology is rapidly evolving, producing lighter weight and more capable batteries. Officials of the company hope to have a 250 mile version that carries 6 passengers within a few months.

Harbor Air said that they plan to electrify their entire fleet by 2022. If they achieve their goal, or even come close to it they will have made a huge advance in commercial aviation. Until very recently, electric propulsion has not been seen as viable in commercial aviation applications. Finding a way to make air travel less polluting seemed to be a challenging conundrum. Harbor Air and magniX believe that they have found a clean and efficient way to power their airplanes.

The aviation sector is a significant contributor to the release of greenhouse gases into the environment. Although the bulk of that pollution comes from much larger aircraft such as the transcontinental and transoceanic jets that are used by airlines, general aviation and small commercial operators have not been known for fuel efficiency or a lack of pollution. If you’ve ever watched a R-985 start up, you know that all of that smoke can’t be good for people or animals to breathe. If you are around those planes, as I was when I was younger, you learn where to stand and where not to stand when they are conducting ground operations.

So the Harbor Air seaplane with the electric motor is a huge step forward toward a sustainable commercial flight operation.

Aviation has always been a place of innovation and new ideas. A century ago, any airplane that could reliably and safely fly 100 miles was an impressive piece of technology. There are a lot of carriers that started out with a barnstormer and a WWI surplus airplane that was held together by the creativity and courage of the entrepreneur pilot. Their safety record was none too good. Even by the time my father was starting his business after WWII, he couldn’t obtain life insurance from conventional carriers because of his occupation. A relatively high-priced Lloyds of London policy was the only way he could insure his family and business would have a future if something happened to him.

I’m sure that there will be some historic and nostalgic airplanes, with the old engines around for many years to come. Harbor Air may continue to maintain a couple of their R-985 powered Beavers just for a few old coots and aviation buffs like me. I might yet get that ride behind the rumble. On the other hand, perhaps instead I will be among the first to take a ride behind the first of their electric fleet.

I know my father, given the choice, would choose to be the first to fly behind the new motor not the last to fly behind the old technology.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!