A meeting with Electric Air

In New Zealand, there is one electric plane. Just one, and it is based in Christchurch. So one can imagine how excited I was to see “in the flesh” when I found out Gary, his owner, was bringing it (or her? no one could tell me) to Kapiti Airport, for 10 days. Not because being up in the air gives you the best views a human eye can see, but because of the immense opportunity such an aircraft represents to address the significant adverse effects born out of aviation: noise and air pollution. Also, I was extremely eager to meet the man who made that step into the unknown when no one around him had.

Meeting Gary was truly and immensely inspiring. First, he has what I think is a dream job: he’s been working in sustainable energy for the past 20 years, building wind farms, and more recently, solar farms. Is there a more exciting job to wake up to in the morning than addressing the biggest threat faced by humanity? Very much in line with his career, Gary has been amongst the firsts driving an EV. Not nowadays, when new models pop every second day and prices are nearing parity with their ICE counterparts, rather at a time when fast chargers were scarce and the range was in the 60 miles. So that’s commitment. With that in mind, came a time when Gary, who is also a pilot, couldn’t bear the idea of flying, thus contributing to climate change. To put his money where his mouth is, he went on and purchased the Alpha Electro from Pipistrel in Slovenia. Meridian came on board as the power supplier – and by signing up to Certified Renewable Energy, ElecticAir is able to count their Scope 2 emissions as zero.

The Alpha Electro is an LSA, a Light-Sport Aircraft. It weighs just 380kg empty and it is a beauty. It is mind-blowingly simple: a motor, an inverter, and two batteries (oh, and an airframe around these!). Each battery weighs 50kgs and offers 10kWh (that’s how you measure battery capacity). So with 20kWh in total, the Alpha carries as much as a Nissan Leaf, and with that, can fly one hour (without eating in the 30% charge it is meant to keep as a reserve). It needs one hour to recharge, which has no impact on its operations, says Gary (a classic plane would need a refill, something that can’t be done while instructors debrief the last flight, or prepare for the next one).

It is a two-seater, perfect for training, but where it gets interesting, is its costs: it is more expensive to buy than its direct equivalent running on fossil fuel, but is a multiple times cheaper to run (especially in maintenance, a big-ticket item in aviation). For example, a typical flight will use 15 kWh an hour, so at 20c per kWh, that’s just $3. By comparison a Cessna 172 uses about $100 in fuel per hour!

But to residents living near an Airport, like Paraparaumu or the Eastern suburbs of Wellington, what will be most relevant is where the true difference lies: this machine is super quiet. Gary said that every instructor who has flown the aircraft was blown away (yes, pun intended) by its near silence. During his test flight, Mayor K Gurunathan of the Kapiti Coast District Council talked about a true, pure sense of flying for the connection with the elements the silence allowed for. On the ground, when the plane reaches 300m altitude, people can’t hear it passing by. Yes, it is the altitude the Wellington Aero Club is cruising at flies the circuit above Miramar North.

And this is where this article makes sense on this blog: with such a compelling proposition for the Aero Club, its members, and for the community, one wonders why such a piece of technology is not yet in order. Gary and I didn’t avoid the controversial topic and we discussed NoFlyZone. I shared the hope that soon, the circuit in Wellington will be solely flown with the Alpha Electro, giving a chance to reconcile the pilots and their neighbouring community.

When I left the hangar, the rain was bucketing the roof. I haven’t been able to fly the Alpha Electro, this time, but got to see it, and above all, to meet Gary. Together we discussed the future of aviation and the future of transport in general, one that runs on sustainably produced electricity. Despite the harrowing weather, I couldn’t help but feel lifted on my way back to Wellington for the wonder one can achieve when we truly commit to it.

If you want to read or view more, here are a few resources:

  1. Kapiti Electric Vehicle Society documentary on their test flight
  2. The NZ Herald article
  3. Electric Air pledge to keep Kapiti Airport open
  4. Electric revolution dance