George Bye, an Air Force fighter pilot, engineer and entrepreneur, sees electric airplanes as a way to secure the future of the aviation industry he has devoted his life to. The impetus behind his conviction starts with an “E” — economics.
“It’s not just cool, it’s green and clean. That’s awesome,” Bye said of the sleek, all-electric eFlyer his company, Bye Aerospace, has developed.
But the feature that Bye believes makes the plane a game changer is its cost. He said it will cost less to buy and much less to operate than the plane that many people now train on, the single-engine Cessna 172. That matters because of a looming pilot shortage spurred by a couple of major factors: a huge number of pilots on the verge of retirement and the escalating expense of training.
“This plane is $23 per flight hour, including the fuel and all the operating costs,” said Bye, picking up an eFlyer model in his office at Centennial Airport in Arapahoe County.
Picking up a model of a Cessna 172, Bye said, “This one is $110 per flight hour.”
The base price of a two-seat eFlyer is $349,000, Bye said, while a Cessna costs around $438,000. The base price for the four-seat eFlyer the company also has in development is $449,000.
Bye believes the difference in expense could be the difference between keeping the pilot pipeline full and planes sitting idle in hangars because there aren’t enough people to fly them.
“Thirty percent of our airline pilots are retiring in the next three years, but 80 percent of our students pilots stop their training,” Bye said. “They drop out and the No. 1 reason is cost.”
And the Cessna 172 training fleet is aging, too. The fleet’s average age is 50 years old, Bye said. “We are desperately in need of a fresh start.”
Electric plane taking off
The aviation industry appears to be listening. Bye Aerospace is the first electric plane to apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for certification as a training airplane. The certification, which the company is also seeking for the four-seat version, could take up to two years.
Even before getting the go-ahead from the FAA, the business has received orders or is in the process of making agreements on about 600 planes.
One of those customers is Norwegian-based OSM Aviation Group, which announced in May that it ordered 60 of the two-seat eFlyers for training. In a statement, the company said it plans to phase out the Cessna 172s it currently uses for the “more environmentally friendly” and less expensive electric plane.
“I think we’re about to see this huge influx of new manufacturers bringing a lot of innovation to the market, and we want to support them by being the demand side of that equation,” said Rudd Davis, founder and CEO of BlackBird, a San Francisco-based on-demand air service.
“Bye has been working on this for the last decade,” Davis continued. “They got an early start, and so they’re very far along. They’ve done some amazing work.”
BlackBird has agreed to buy the first 100 commercial four-seat planes and 10 two-seat planes from Bye Aerospace. Davis said the environmental benefits of an electric airplane are appealing.
“But the simple reality is that it has to make economic sense, too, for it to actually be something that is sustainable,” Davis added. “People and goods always want to move faster, cheaper and further. Electric allows for that because you’re no longer spending a couple hundred dollars an hour to fly; you’re spending $40 an hour and you can go 150 miles.”
Breaking the cost barrier
Expense is the biggest barrier for aspiring pilots, said Jeffrey Forrest, chairman of the Aviation and Aerospace Sciences Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
A big factor is the number of hours required to be a commercial pilot, which the FAA increased to 1,500 from 250 in 2013 to address safety concerns. More hours mean more money that aspiring pilots have to pay, Forrest said. Estimates of the potential pilot shortage vary, with some putting it at 400,000 to 500,000 in the next 10 to 15 years in North America.
“I would say the average student right now goes out to an airport like Centennial or Rocky Mountain Regional or Front Range, and they’ve got an instructor on board and they’re going to do an hour of log-able flight time, you’re looking at about $200 an hour,” Forrest said.
The cost of aviation fuel, which is leaded, versus electricity is a key factor. Bye said a pilot-in-training will pay about $50 an hour for fuel alone for a conventional plane. Based on Colorado electricity rates, he estimates the same person would pay the equivalent of about $3 an hour to power the plane, which continues to undergo test flights.
The eFlyer is capable of three hours of flight time plus reserves, Bye said. The one-hour flight training mission is easily accomplished with plenty of reserves, he said.
A Cessna that Bye and his team converted to electric power about 10 years ago made it 15 minutes aloft. Since then, Bye said, the batteries, motor and technology have advanced considerably.
The eFlyer is equipped with a motor by German manufacturer Siemens and is about 95 percent to 98 percent efficient, Bye said. It weighs 57 pounds, compared to 350 pounds for a conventional plane’s engine. During the last decade, the capacity of the batteries has gone from 100 watt hours per kilogram, the amount of energy stored per unit weight, to 260 watts per kilogram.
“We no longer have a technical hurdle to overcome to create a viable electric training airplane,” Bye said.
Flying higher, faster
The horsepower of the eFlyer and Cessna 172 are roughly on par, but Bye said assessing how they match up is more complex than that figure. He said the electric plane, made out of carbon composites, has one-half the aerodynamic drag, one-half the structural weight, has a higher top speed and climbs faster.
As for environmental benefits, skeptics might point out that right now, the majority of power for an electric plane would come from fossil fuels. However, the percentage of electricity produced by renewable energy sources is increasing and is expected to keep growing as utilities and communities pursue goals of using more renewables and cutting climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m going to do my part and obviously the energy industry is working on its part. My responsibility is to do what I can within my sphere,” Bye said of questions about the electricity powering the planes.
Forrest, chairman of the Colorado Aeronautical Board, said some airport officials have raised concerns about having the right infrastructure and being able to handle big spikes in electricity when several planes are recharged.
Another wild card, Forrest said, is how the FAA will deal with certifying pilots on an electric plane. He wonders if pilots will have to also log a certain amount of time on a conventional plane so they are familiar with the different systems.
Bye said as pilots goes through the rigorous commercial training to become an airline pilot, they use a mix of planes and flight simulators. “The eFlyer, with all its benefits, will play an important, but not exclusive role in that process,” he said.
Not so long ago, Bye said there was a certain “snicker factor” when people talked about electric planes. “People were kind of going OK, maybe electric cars, but batteries are way too heavy. It will never happen. How long is your extension cord?”
Now, Forrest said the industry is taking electric planes seriously.
“Bye’s plane is well-engineered. The concept is proven and the functionality of it is proven,” Forrest said.
And it could help drastically reduce the cost of training, Forrest said.
In the end, that’s what Bye is aiming for.
“From a legacy perspective, the general aviation industry is 50 years old. The airplanes are 50 years old. Pilots like myself, we’re all getting into our 50s and 60s,” Bye said. “What’s the legacy we’re going to leave behind? What is our generation going to do to make ready for what comes next?”