They are cleaner, more efficient and cost far less to operate than other airplanes. And they make no noise.
“It’s almost like being in a glider,” George Bye said of his eFlyer2 and eFlyer4, two small battery-powered airplanes that are expected to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in the next 18 months.
If approved, they would be the first “e-aircraft” to become commercially available in the U.S. Bye’s company, Colorado-based Bye Aerospace, has more than 200 of the planes on order.
“Electric aviation is just disruptive. There is less fuel consumed and way less noise,” said Bye, a former military pilot who founded the firm 12 years ago and has since been developing the electric aircraft.
Bye was inspired to build an electric plane as he watched battery technology evolve for Tesla electric automobiles and smartphones. He started with a small, unmanned solar electric plane, then converted a Cessna 172, a popular four-seat, single engine aircraft.
A delicate balance
The biggest challenge in designing electric airplanes is the weight of their batteries.
Taking off and getting to cruising altitude requires a lot of energy and lift. For most aircraft, that means they need a larger wing surface area to provide adequate lift at lower speeds. But the larger surface area adds drag and makes cruising less efficient at high speeds.
For an electric plane, more power means bigger and heavier batteries, which creates a delicate balancing act for engineers.
On the plus side, electric motors are cheaper than combustion engines and easily scaled up and down. They’re also less mechanically complex since they don’t need fuel lines, valves and exhaust systems.
Electric planes, which are not powered by fossil fuels, also will help reduce CO2 emissions. In 2018, commercial carriers generated 918 million metric tons of CO2, about 2.4 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.
And aviation emissions have increased 32 percent increase over the past five years.
“We want to play our part in reducing CO2,” Bye said.
Two- and four-seat electric planes can be used as air taxis, a fast way for someone arriving at Pittsburgh International Airport to get to cities like Erie or Johnstown.
In some parts of the country, the appeal of an air taxi might be even stronger, Bye said.
For example, Los Angeles is 120 miles from San Diego, but timing that drive is unpredictable because Southern California roads are so often clogged with traffic.
But in an eFlyer, you could make that same trip in a half hour.
Valuable in pilot training
The United States has a shortage of pilots, particularly at the regional level, according to the FAA. Chief among the reasons is the increasingly high cost of training – getting a commercial pilot’s license can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Bye says his electric planes could be part of a solution.
The electricity for an hour’s flight costs $3 compared to a $50 fuel bill for traditional combustion-powered aircraft, he said. Overall, the eFlyers cost 80 percent less to operate than traditional planes, which could provide an advantage for busy flight schools Bye added.
While there are other electric airplane initiatives, including some that feature hybrid fuel-electric designs, Bye expects his two models will be the first to hit the market. And while the aviation industry is a long way – likely decades – from developing large commercial electric airplanes, that’s the future, he added.
“It’s a question of when, not if. That’s where the industry is headed,” he said.