Newsletter 107 – September 2018

Newsletter 107 September 2018

Curriculum Creation – Integrating electric into flight training.

BY BETH E. STANTON (reprinted from the September 2018 Issue EAA Sport Aviation Magazine)

HOW DO YOU TRANSITION from piston engines to electric propulsion for flight training? A first step is to gather data to design a never-done-before flight-training curriculum. Pipistrel designed the all-electric Alpha Electro to be a traffic pattern trainer, not a cross-country flyer. In 2015, Joseph Oldham, EAA 1006260, pilot and director of the CALSTART San Joaquin Valley Clean Transportation Center, envisioned a small fleet of Alpha Electro trainers with a strategically placed network of chargers at four Fresno County, California, regional airports that would allow the aircraft to fly beyond the traffic pattern (see “Practical Beyond the Pattern” in the August 2017 issue of EAA Sport Aviation.) The zero-emissions Alpha Electro integrated into a flight-training curriculum could lower costs and provide new career opportunities for youths and veterans, a boon to a region known for poor air quality and a high unemployment rate.

The cities of Reedley and Mendota sponsored grant applications for the Fresno County Measure C New Technology Reserve Fund program along with CALSTART, a national nonprofit organization that supports the rapid growth of the clean transportation technology industry. The $1 million grant awarded in 2016 provided funding for four Alpha Electro aircraft, electric aircraft charger installation, technical assistance, and $90,000 in flight-training scholarships. The Sustainable Aviation Project aircraft comprise the largest concentration of production all-electric airplanes in the western hemisphere.

John Boesel, president and CEO of CALSTART, believes that the electric aviation market may be commercially viable within a decade with industry and government working together.
“Based on our 26 years of experience of working to bring zero-emission transportation technology to the market, we’re excited about the opportunity the Sustainable Aviation Project represents,” he said.

Since taking delivery of the planes in March 2018, more than 50 hours have been flown operating under an FAA experimental air- worthiness certificate. Data loggers collect data using an onboard computer and a cam- era recording the EPSI570 glass panel. Joseph, who has flown the majority of the flight testing, said they are a “dream” to fly, with little vibration, smooth power application, responsive handling, and nearly silent operation from the ground.

“We are breaking a lot of new ground and are getting to understand how you can actually use these aircraft in a flight-training operation, what their limitations are, where their strengths lie,” he said. “The major strength is the reduced cost of operation and reliability of the electric motors. The limitation is your time aloft.”

Even with this limitation, the plane is capable of many things student pilots need to practice: takeoffs, landings, navigation, and energy management. With chargers at nearby airports, it can fly distances such as the 25 nm radius after soloing.

The flight testing is quantifying the amount of energy necessary for cross-country flight in various wind and temperature conditions and for maneuvers such as a standard traffic pattern. Flight duration averages about 40 minutes per charge while landing with more than 20 percent state of charge (SOC) remaining in the batteries, the level that Pipistrel recommends as a minimum for landing.

“There is not a lot of information in the POH [pilot’s operating handbook] that talks about when you should consider coming back to the airport,” Joseph said. “What we’ve been doing is figuring out where should you be when you get to a certain state of charge in relation to the airport.”

The maximum distance Joseph has flown is 54 nm. A standard traffic pattern uses an average of 6-10 percent SOC, and the maxi- mum number of touch-and-goes has been eight, starting at 100 percent SOC and drawing down to 40 percent SOC. Pipistrel recommends not taking off with less than 40 percent SOC.

The plane cruises at 98 mph and has a 21 kWh battery capacity and charges with a Pipistrel 15-kW charger. A training scenario is to arrive at an airport with a charging station at 60 percent SOC, do several touch-and-goes until the SOC reaches 40 percent, then charge it back up or trade off with an already charged plane. Three airports have chargers installed: Fresno Chandler Executive (KFCH), Reedley Municipal (O32), and William Robert Johnston Municipal (M90) in Mendota, with a fourth still to be determined. There are currently three aircraft based at Chandler, plus one at Reedley, and they are routinely flying back and forth between the two airports. Joseph has also flown to Sierra Sky Park and Selma, each about 12 nm from Chandler. He can fly there, do five touch-and-goes, and return to Chandler with more than 20 percent SOC remaining.

“We are actively flying the aircraft and flying them successfully,” Joseph said. “We’re doing what we said in our proposal, which is establishing a network of chargers and operating the aircraft from multiple airports. The aircraft have a capability beyond the traffic pattern which we’ve proven.”

According to Joseph, an electric propulsion system is a great way to train students or pilots transitioning to the aircraft because it’s responsive, simple, and allows them to focus on stick-and-rudder skills. A nonprofit corporation, New Vision Aviation, has been established that will provide flight training and operate and maintain the aircraft. A prototype ground school that includes electric aircraft operation launched on July 10 at the EAA Chapter 376 hangar at Sierra Sky Park. The ground school is geared toward the private pilot standard, but flight training will be to the sport pilot certificate level. One of the instructors is a CFI-G, and they hope to include a Sundancer motorglider in the program to provide glider ratings for younger students who may solo a glider at age 14. After some trial and error, Joseph said he has figured out a technique that allows the Alpha Electro to thermal like a glider, which gains altitude and prolongs time aloft while at the same time conserving electric power.

“We’re taking the experience and the knowledge from the past and combining it with the technology of the future to produce the next generation of pilots.”
— Joseph Oldham, Pilot and Director of CALSTART

New Vision Aviation is working on gathering data to support a petition for exemption through the FAA from the current regulation that limits the Alpha Electro’s to experimental certification. Once such a petition is approved, the aircraft could be used to begin providing flight training. An avgas aircraft is also being sought by New Vision Aviation to augment the Alpha Electro trainers.

“We’re taking the experience and the knowledge from the past and combining it with the technology of the future to produce the next generation of pilots,” Joseph said. “There is a lot that you can learn from the past and the old airplanes. It’s just that we need to have new, modern airplanes to train these students in as well. Very few have the opportunity to train in the most modern aircraft that are out there.”

Since Joseph came up with the idea of creating an electric aircraft charger network in California, Switzerland has picked up the idea and is working toward getting 10 airports in Switzerland set up with chargers for operations between multiple airports. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrating the California project on April 17, 2018, Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba said, “We are sitting in a moment in history. This program is the first of its kind in the United States. We are rolling out a technology that is the future and making it happen here in the Central Valley.”     < EAA