If an electric-powered aircraft crashes and nobody is injured, does it matter?

A crash of a two-seat aircraft in mid-August was portrayed by local media as a blow to Norway’s plan to electrify all domestic aviation by 2040. The two-seat aircraft, owned by Norwegian airport operator Avinor, crashed in a lake after losing power.

Light-aircraft crashes caused by power failures are far from rare, but the aircraft involved—a Pipistrel Alpha Electro—is the first of its kind in Norway and was being piloted by Avinor CEO Dag Falk-Petersen with State Secretary Aase Marthe Horrigmo as the passenger. Neither was injured.

Developed by Slovenia’s Pipistrel, the battery-powered Electro is the first production electric aircraft and has been used by Avinor since 2018 to showcase the potential of electric aviation. The reason for the power failure is not yet known.

More than 60 Alpha Electros have been delivered, but electric aircraft are still novelties and any accidents attract attention. 

Several startups developing hybrid-electric aircraft have been engaging with Avinor, which operates Norway’s 44 state-owned airports, as well as Norwegian carrier Wideroe Airlines. They include Ampaire and Wright Electric in the US, France’s VoltAero and Sweden’s Heart Aerospace. All are planning to develop small hybrid-electric regional airliners with between nine and 19 seats.

Gothenburg-based Heart Aerospace plans a ground-based demonstration of a full-size electric drivetrain by summer 2020, founder and CEO Anders Forslund said. The startup plans to fly a proof-of-concept aircraft in 2022 and is targeting entry into service in 2025 for its 250-nm-range ES-19 airliner.

Heart is an outgrowth of the government-supported Electric Air Transport in Sweden program, or Elise, which has the goal of creating an electric aviation industry and infrastructure in Sweden. 

Elise was launched after Norway announced in early 2018 that all domestic flights would use electric aircraft by 2040. 

“We asked, can we do this in Sweden also?” Forslund said. The first objective is to look at the electric-aircraft infrastructure required in Sweden, both “to combat climate change and to change the economics of operating regional aircraft,” he said.

Regional flights connecting rural communities to cities are heavily subsidized in Norway, Forslund noted, and electric propulsion promises to significantly reduce the cost of energy and maintenance. A second objective of Elise is to exploit Sweden’s experience in aircraft development and electric vehicles to create a new industry. 

“We like to say that Sweden has the biggest aerospace industry per capita in the world, and we have a burgeoning electromobility industry here in Gothenburg,” Forslund said, noting Sweden was once a leader in regional-aircraft manufacturing with the Saab 340 and 2000 turboprops.

The first, or pre-study, phase of Elise, Forslund explained, “asked, what is the problem we are trying to solve, and what would be the position of Sweden in this? What is the niche for a Swedish effort?” 

The pre-study concluded that urban air mobility was not as relevant to Norway and Sweden as regional aviation.

The second phase of Elise is expected to get underway this year and will involve a preliminary design of the ES-19. 

The market for short-range regional aircraft transportation exists, but it will need aircraft with low-enough operating costs to compete with cars and buses. And it would also require a revival of FAA Part 135-style regional airlines, which have almost ceased to exist, with exceptions like US east coast operator Cape Air. This may be a particularly tricky hurdle because the last time “one level of safety” was legislated for US airlines, small carriers ceased to exist as independent operators, and most were folded into the majors.

But, like the first 19-seat turboprops, the new and planned small electric aircraft do have the potential to reset the air travel cost bar over short ranges. And the increasing public awareness of climate change and sustainability should make electric-powered aircraft attractive transport options. 

So even with occasional crashes, the momentum and appetite for electric aircraft should grow. Electric aircraft could, indeed, spark a new era of 19-seat airliners.