Newsletter 130 June 2020
EAA Feature – Charged with Potential.
Republished with approval of Beth Stanton – EAA SportAviation magazine July 2020.
Download the article in PDF format >> HERE <<
FORGING A NEW PARADIGM IN AVIATION INVOLVES PURSE, PEOPLE, PAPERWORK, AND PATIENCE. TO GO THE EXHAUSTIVE DISTANCE, WORK OF THIS MAGNITUDE REQUIRES A GROUP EFFORT AND A LEADER WITH AN UNSHAKEABLE FAITH IN THE
NEW VISION. JOSEPH OLDHAM IS THE VISIONARY AND DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THE SUSTAINABLE AVIATION PROJECT (SAP).
Over the last few years, the SAP has procured more than $1 million in grants to purchase the largest concentration of electric aircraft in the western hemisphere, established a network of chargers at multiple airports, performed almost 200 hours of validation testing, and submitted a petition of exemption to the FAA toallow electric aircraft for ﬂight training.
The SAP is the ﬁrst project of its type in the world. It is all the more remarkable that it’s happening in the agricultural Central Valley of California, a region that faces signiﬁcant challenges with unemployment rates and poor air quality. The SAP has given rural communities the opportunity to unitearound the goal of creating aviation career opportunities for their youth and residents.
Ever humble, Joseph is quick to down-play his part in the project.
“Without this community, without this county, without the belief that these people had in this thing, this would have gone nowhere,” Joseph said. “I would have just been somebody who had an idea. A lot of people have ideas, but it takes more than just having an idea to turn that idea into reality.”
BLAZING AN ELECTRIC TRAIL
Launched in 2016,the SAP is composed of aconsortium of public entities that include CALSTART, a nonproﬁt organization working with businesses and governments to develop clean transportation solutions, and the cities of Mendota and Reedley,California.
Funding for the project was provided by the Fresno County Transportation Authority Measure C to demonstrate the viability of electric aircraft to lower the cost barrier for ﬂight training and reduce aircraft noise and emissions.
Four Pipistrel Alpha Electro aircraft were built at the factory in Italy and delivered to Fresno Chandler Executive Airport in March 2018. The Alpha Electro has the same airframe as the Pipistrel Alpha Trainer, a special light-sport aircraft powered by a Rotax 912 engine, but with an electric powerplant. The four SAP Alpha Electro aircraftwere issued experimental airworthiness certiﬁcates for ﬂight testing to prove compliance with ASTM standards for electric powerplant reliability.
“Pipistrel’s vision wasthat these things would operate out of a single location, not out of multiple locations,” Joseph said. A strategically placed network of chargers at local airports would allow the Alpha Electros to ﬂy beyond the traﬃc pattern. Electric chargers were installed at Fresno, Reedley, and Mendota airports to support ﬂight testing and future ﬂight training operations.
In 2018, Joseph founded New Vision Aviation, a nonproﬁt educational ﬂying club, and partnered with the cities of Reedley and Mendota to manage operations of the aircraft.
The Alpha Electros are capable of performing all maneuvers needed to train sportpilots to proﬁciency requirements as well as a considerable segment of private pilots’ requirements. The 50-60 nm range limitation with reserve is capable of meeting the cross-country requirements for sport pilot training provided there are chargers located at the airports where the cross-country ﬂights originate and land.
The ﬁrst step toward an FAA exemption that would allow the integration of electric propulsion into ﬂight training was to gather data.
“This is really early technology,” Joseph said. “We’re learning how these aircraft would actually operate in a ﬂightschool environment.”
New Vision Aviation’s ﬂeet also includes a gas powered Pipistrel Alpha Trainer that would enable data to be collected while comparing the same airframe (with reciprocating versus electric power-plants) in ﬂight training operations.
Joseph, a pilot for 40 years and a member of Committee F37 on Light Sport Aircraft, was the test pilot. He ﬂew the four Alpha Electro aircraft more than 2,500nm and 175 hours during 17 months of testing conducted in various weather conditions and temperatures.
One of the airplanes completed 111 hours of endurance testing in simulated ﬂight training operations speciﬁcally focused on the electric powerplant and battery system without any failure.
“The hundred-hour testing was really to prove that the propulsion system was as reliable or durable as a piston counterpart,” Joseph said. “We proved that it is.”
Joseph noted some operating characteristics involving temperature that are unique to the electric aircraft compared to its combustion engine counterpart.The Alpha Electro pilot’s operating handbook (POH) sets a maximum ambient air temperature limit of 40 degrees Celsius (103 degrees Fahrenheit) to ﬂy the aircraft. Joseph asked Tine Tomažič, director of research and development at Pipistrel, why.
“He said, ‘Well, that was as high as wecould test it in Slovenia,’” Joseph said.
Pipistrel also placed a battery take-oﬀ temperature restriction of 40 degree Celsius to ensure that the battery systems don’t reach the upper threshold of the 49-degree Celsius safety range.
When summer temperatures in Fresno climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the hot weather began to impact the test program. Creative solutions were required so that test hours could continue to accrue. Initial concerns revolved around the battery temperature, but the limiting factor turned out to be the temperature of the power controller, the device that converts the electric power from the batteries and delivers it to the motor.
THE ALPHA ELECTROS ARE CAPABLE OF PERFORMING ALL MANEUVERS NEEDED TO TRAIN SPORT PILOTS TO PROFICIENCY REQUIREMENTS AS WELL AS A CONSIDERABLE SEGMENT OF PRIVATE PILOTS’ REQUIREMENTS.
On hot days, the power controller could overheat quickly doing touch-and-goes. By using less power on takeoﬀ and climbing during cruise, less amperage runs through the power controller, keeping temperatures lower. This procedure has been tested on many days at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and has become standard operating procedure on high-temperature days.
Another heat-related issue was that the battery temperatures would exceed 40 degrees Celsius while being charged in a hot hangar. Once the batteries became hot, they took overnight to cool, which limited ﬂights per aircraft to one to two per day.
Joseph devised a solution to air-condition the batteries while they charged. A small air conditioner designed for cooling computer servers circulated cool air around the battery packs during charging, which allowed another ﬂight immediately after charging.
The discoveries from ﬂight testing the Alpha Electros under conditions and a mission diﬀerent from their provenance yielded a wealth of valuable information. These ﬁndings were the genesis of the New Vision Aviation supplemental ﬂight training operating rules supplement to the Pipistrel Alpha Electro POH.
Flight testing for the FAA petition for exemption was not only an opportunity to gather data from real-life operations, but also attracted the attention of interested parties from around the world.A ircraft manufacturers,battery engineers,pilots, and future students from the United States, Europe, Australia, and South America are expressing an interest in the segreen, state-of-the-art aircraft.
Joseph believes that exposure to aviation at a young age is key to getting more people on a pathway to an aviation career. The SAP and its mission to inspire youth in aviation careers captured the attention of Boeing. In August 2019, a team from Boeing Horizon X came to Fresno to meet with Joseph.
“If you’re going to ﬁnd the people that are going to ﬁll in this void in the pilot community, a lot of them are going to come from disadvantaged neighborhoods,” Joseph said. “But they will not come from those neighborhoods unless they know that there’s an opportunity.”
To support this endeavor, Boeing has provided ﬂight simulators for three elementary school districts in Fresno County.
“It’s really cool when you’re listening to these kids talk about how they didn’t realize that aviation could be a career path for them, but now they want to become pilots,” Joseph said. “And because they’ve been exposed to the simulators and they’re ﬂying them,they’re actually very good. They’re really,really good.”
“THE HUNDRED-HOUR TESTING WAS REALLY TO PROVE THAT THE PROPULSION SYSTEM WAS AS RELIABLE OR DURABLE AS A PISTON COUNTERPART. WE PROVED THAT IT IS.” — JOSEPH OLDHAM
ABC’s Good Morning America aired a segment in January 2020 featuring the SAP and the Boeing ﬂight simulator program.
“This is not only a way to help bring people out of poverty, but it’s also a way to ﬁll the pilot shortage and bring diversity into aviation,” Joseph said. “And this all happened because of the electric aircraft.”
The Association of California Airports invited Joseph to bring an Alpha Electro to Sacramento on February 26 to display on the steps of the state capitol for the 2020 California Aerospace & Aviation Days.
“California has the potential to be a leader in the infrastructure and to keep moving electric aviation forward,” Joseph said. “We have so many companies here with resources that are working on developing the aircraft as California pushes towards zero emissions for transportation.”
FLYING THE ALPHA ELECTRO FOR THE FIRST TIME
BY BETH E. STANTON
Always an opportunist to ﬂy cool new airplanes, I asked Joseph if I could come to Fresno and be a crew member on one of his test ﬂights in the Alpha Electro. I had never ﬂown a light-sport aircraft, let alone an electric ﬁxed-wing aircraft. Simulated ﬂight training in the Electros often required a crew member to replicate weight and monitor the controls like a real training scenario. Since I’m an experienced pilot, he agreed to the mission. As a bonus, I’d also get to ﬂy the gas-powered Alpha Trainer. I was eager to see how they compared not only to each other, but also to other GA airplanes.
First up was ﬂying the Alpha Trainer. Predictably, it had the usual noise, vibration, warm up time, and spooled-up takeoﬀ roll as any GA aircraft. Right away, I noticed the fabled sensitive LSA control inputs. Having ﬂown aerobatic airplanes, I acclimated to the light controls almost immediately. I appreciated the simple, modern design of the carbon ﬁber cockpit and glass panel as I maneuvered above the checker board farmland of the San Joaquin Valley.
After landing, we pushed the Alpha Electro out of the hangar. It was a novelty for the preﬂight inspection to include checking the state of charge (SOC) of the battery packs as opposed to fuel and oil. After turning on the master, avionics, power controller switch, andt hrottle switch, the coolant pump whirred, but the prop didn’t budge. Moving the throttle forward, the prop started spinning and the airplane made a soft bjjjjjeeeew sound, reminiscent of aspaceship taking oﬀ.
“If I got a hold of one of these things, I would just taxi around the airport stopping and starting, pretending to be the Enterprise,” I said.We giggled like children.
At full throttle, the Alpha Electro jumped oﬀ the runway faster than the gas-powered version. As we cruised around the valley, I noticed that it had more docile handling characteristics compared to the gas-powered version. Joseph said that the electric motor has smoother power than a four-cylinder combustion engine. I was careful to keep coordinated ﬂight, as any tiny amount of drag decreases eﬃciency (and time aloft). It was surreal to glance at the SOC reading as opposed to the familiar fuel, engine, and oil gauges.
Joseph has ﬂown with a few dozen crew members during the ﬂight testing phase, and I was the ﬁrst person to ﬂy both versions of the Alpha trainers back to back. Coming in to quietly land on long, ﬂoaty wings was an experience I’ll never forget. I won’t forget because once these babies are certiﬁed for instruction, I’m going to be ﬁrst in line to get checked out to ﬂy them.
Top: Beth gets a lesson from Joseph on the importance of keeping the ball centered.
Bottom: Battery state of charge (SOC) instrumentation (right) in the simple, state-of-the-art, carbon ﬁber Alpha Electro cockpit.
OUTSIDE THE BOX
The petition for FAA exemption was submitted in August 2019. The SAP community hopes that its ﬁndings and international precedent will be taken into account as its case is examined. The European Aviation Safety Agency has issued permits authorizing the Alpha Electro for ﬂight training in Switzerland and France. The Alpha Electro is also authorized for Australian special light sport airworthiness certiﬁcation and has been in service since January 2018 for ﬂight training operations in Australia.
When Joseph was growing up, he always had ideas that were outside the box.
“Everybody would discourage me and say, ‘Oh, you’re crazy. This will never happen. It’s a pipe dream,’” he said. “I think that’s one of the things that I’m so sensitive to with this work that we’re doing now with these simulators. We are trying to inspire these young people. We want to foster those dreams. We want to give people a pathway forward so that they can actually achieve their dreams and not be crushed by their family situation.”
Joseph noted that parents living below the poverty line might be concerned about aﬀording pilot training. However, part of the SAP grant funding includes $90,000 in ﬂight training scholarships. Electric aircraft have dramatically lower operating costs compared to combustion engine aircraft due to fuel and maintenance cost savings.
“There is a value in these humans who otherwise wouldn’t be able to do this,” Joseph said.
“They’ve got the skill set, and they’ve got the passion. We are bringing these resources because they are going to be valuable. The investment that others will make in them will be paid back many times over.”
Beth E. Stanton, EAA 1076326, majored in English because it involved the least amount of math. She ﬁnds it hilarious that now she is a pilot and writes stories about airplanes and technical stuﬀ. She can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.