The First electric-powered flight of a six-seater Piper M-class aircraft is flying over England and is currently Europe’s largest zero-emission aircraft.

ZeroAvia, the leading innovator in decarbonising commercial aviation, conducted the first ever electric-powered flight on 23rd June, 2020, of the ‘first’ commercial-scale aircraft in the UK.

The six-seater Piper M-class aircraft  which has been retrofitted with a device that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity – undertook a taxi, take-off, full pattern circuit and landing on Thursday.

The test flight was a significant milestone both for the UK’s net zero and green aviation ambitions, and for ZeroAvia on the journey to demonstrating long-distance zero emission flights in large aircraft.

AeroAvia concept. (AeroAvia)

​Thursday’s ZeroAvia flight was carried out at the company’s research and development site at Cranfield Airport, in England, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of London. The airport is presently owned by Cranfield University.

ZeroAvia is focused on developing a hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Hydrogen-electric offers the same zero-emission potential of battery-electric, but has a much more promising energy-to-weight ratio, making it viable for commercial operations at a much larger scale and in a shorter time frame. Additionally, hydrogen-electric powertrain is projected to have lower operating costs due to the high cost of battery cycling in typical high-utilization regional aircraft.

“While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source, the size of this commercially available aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon,” Val Miftakhov, CEO and Founder of ZeroAvia, said in a statement.

The next step of the HyFlyer project will see ZeroAvia work toward carrying out a flight of between 250 and 300 nautical miles from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago located in waters off the north coast of mainland Scotland. The plane on this flight will use hydrogen-fuel cells. It’s hoped this trip will happen before the end of 2020.

The longer-distance hydrogen-electric test flights are planned for later this summer.

​ZeroAvia plans commercially relevant, certified 10-20 seat configurations ready to go within three years, and 50-100 seat configurations in flight by the end of the decade. The company projects that aircraft over 200 seats with a range in excess of 3,000 nautical miles is achievable by 2040 without requiring any fundamental scientific breakthroughs.

In spite of the challenges presented by the lockdown, and thanks to the support by the Airport’s Operations team, Cranfield University, and Cranfield Aerospace, the HyFlyer project has made big strides in progressing the programme with minimal delays. A hydrogen refuelling infrastructure has recently been commissioned, and ZeroAvia has completed a full set of ground-based full-power flight simulations for its long-distance hydrogen flights.

“The flight is the latest in a series of milestones that moves the possibility of zero emission flight closer to reality,” said Miftakhov. “We all want the aviation industry to come back after the pandemic on a firm footing to be able to move to a net zero future, with a green recovery. That will not be possible without realistic, commercial options for zero emission flight, something we will bring to market as early as 2023.”

ZeroAvia’s innovation programme in the UK is part of the UK Government-backed Project HyFlyer, alongside project partners Intelligent Energy and the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC).

The Hydrogen-powered Piper M-class gets airbourne. (AeroAvia)

Funded through Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI)-led Aerospace R&T programme, Project HyFlyer aims “to decarbonise medium range small passenger aircraft by demonstrating powertrain technology to replace conventional piston engines in propeller aircraft.”
The conventional powertrain in the aircraft will be replaced with electric motors, hydrogen fuel cells and gas storage.