Electric Flight: Stress Testing the Future with NEBO Air

With increasing pressure on the aviation industry to change, NEBO Air are flying the future, today

The UK’s first fully electric airline.

If you are like me, you’ll have lived most of your life with ‘your eyes turned skywards’, daydreaming about flying, aircraft, and the sky in general. And if – like me – you find one of flying’s most hypnotising characteristics to be an almost indefinable connection to the Earth and its elements, a sort of deeper connection to the World whilst simultaneously being separated from the rest of humanity down there on the ground, well…if that’s you too, you will probably also feel an element of guilt. 

Why? Because if you appreciate the view outside the window, you will also appreciate the un-deniable damage your love of flying is causing it. As an active airline pilot, private pilot and flight instructor I have often remarked to people: “I dread to think what my carbon footprint is”. Indeed, I genuinely do dread to think. So imagine how fascinated I was to be talking to Sergey Grachev, the CEO of NEBOair, about their revolutionary ‘zero emissions’ aircraft.

Starting out as UK reps for Pipistrel aircraft, NEBOair were initially working on obtaining UK certification for the Alpha trainer – a light-weight yet robust two-seater. However, when in June this year the Pipistrel Velis became the first electrically-powered training aircraft to obtain EASA certification, Grachev and NEBO made the bold decision to switch their focus entirely to the Velis and fully-electric aviation.

Now, it’s difficult to stress just what a big decision that was. Imagine if, during the 1990’s, someone had chosen to buy an electric car, at a time when such a thing was pretty much useless because there were literally no charging points anywhere in the country. Imagine too that there were no mechanics able to work on that car, because they’d never seen anything like it. In fact, the rules for servicing a car like that hadn’t even been written yet. Oh, and back then there wasn’t even a course anyone could go on to become qualified to service it. Velis is an impressive aircraft, being capable of comparative performance to current light training aircraft, and able to stay airborne for nearly an hour at 90kts with standard VFR reserves. As a circuit-training machine – which is what it’s been designed for – it could be perfect. However, what use would it be if every time you went to another airfield you couldn’t re-fuel simply because nowhere was equipped to re-fuel it?

You are probably starting to get an idea of the massive logistical and regulatory challenges associated with NEBOair’s decision. Importing the first aircraft of its type into a country is a big job on its own, but the task they have set themselves is vast. They are not just agents for a new type of aircraft, they are agents for an entirely new concept in aviation.

Given the obvious challenges, it would be easy to dismiss their chances of success. However over the course of a chat with Grachev I began to realise that to do so would be foolish. The clarity with which he outlined the challenges they face and the rational, measured approach they have taken in order to overcome them is impressive. This is not a company that seems to be under-estimating the job they have taken on…and they have a plan.

That plan revolves around three core areas, the first of which is to offer experience flights, or ‘trial lessons’ if you like. You might be thinking this sounds like a fairly modest way of kicking off such a huge undertaking and you’d be correct, but it’s very much intentional. Experience flights will give NEBOair the chance to test out the operating of electric aircraft in the real world. Forget ‘book figures’…they’ll get to know the genuine operating costs and requirements of utilising this new type of aircraft. They’ll discover the challenges it presents, and they’ll be able to work out how to overcome them. This first stage in the process is also a valuable tool for generating interest in both the aircraft and the concept, which there is understandably a lot of already. Offering trips to the media or potential customers and investors, they will be able to show people that electric-powered flight is no longer limited to flimsy test aircraft operating at low altitude for just a few minutes. This is the real deal.

Which brings me to the second of NEBOair’s key focus areas: Distribution. Using what they’ve learned from operating the experience flights, their task is to sell the concept – and the aircraft – to flying schools. Personally I’m excited to see this begin to happen. Imagine if you could market a zero-emissions aircraft to your students, using the fast-charge battery pack to completely recharge the aircraft’s batteries in 5 minutes between sorties. Imagine being airborne with only the quiet, smooth running of an electric motor providing the sound-track. Are you an airfield with noise-sensitive neighbours? …Not any more! I can imagine days in the future where flying with the roar of a piston Lycoming in the front, vibrating your teeth out, might seem arcane – primitive, even.

We’re not quite at that stage yet obviously, but the potential is so clearly there. This first EASA-certified type might not currently have the legs to replace many of the current light aircraft we know and love, but electric-powered transport technology is moving forward at such a pace that it can only be a matter of time. Back in the early 2000’s, mobile phone manufacturers couldn’t predict what a phone would even look like within 3-5 years, such was the pace of technological progress. Now look at us – phones are practically an extension of our bodies. I believe we could be at a similar juncture in electric-powered flight, where all we need is to see the technology working before the flood gates open and development exponentially expands the capability.

And so we come to the third, and by far the most important aspect of NEBOair’s plan. The first two focus areas (and all the challenges they involve) are simply pieces of a puzzle – a puzzle that when complete will take the form of a Feasibility Study. It is this which, more than anything, is evidence of the professional approach NEBOair are taking to their self-imposed challenges. Their study will be the ‘final report’ into the stress-testing of a whole new way of operating aircraft. The way they have chosen to run this ‘experiment’ is both novel and exciting: they are starting a ‘micro airline’.

You can probably imagine how difficult it would be to encourage a GA airfield in the UK – often only just surviving financially – to invest in a brand new aircraft. It would be even more difficult to convince them if, in order to use that aircraft effectively, they had to install three-phase electricity and set up stationary charging points. NEBOair’s response to that is to prove it’s worth doing by actually doing it themselves. They are engaging with energy companies to sponsor the rollout of charging points that will enable them to operate an aerial transportation service between London and Lincoln, via their ‘home base’ at Shipmeadow airfield in Suffolk.

You perhaps need to look beyond the literal aspects of what they’re doing here to see the full value of it. London to Lincoln in two and a half hours (including re-charge at Shipmeadow) is not likely to change the landscape of aerial transport in the UK. However, what it might well do is prove multiple important concepts. For example, it could demonstrate to energy companies the benefits of getting on board this train right at the embryonic stage, enabling them to reap the benefits of supplying power to a large part of the general aviation industry for the future. Secondly, it could demonstrate to airfield operators that those financial burdens of installation can be sponsored, and the works installed within a couple of days. Like BT giving you a router and doing the installation for your broadband, what if the electricity suppliers did the installing in exchange for a contract to supply? Instead of merely describing an un-proven concept to airfields, NEBO could actually show them what is involved, and prove the benefits.

Those benefits go beyond reducing emissions and costs. One of the first things that Grachev said they had noticed at Shipmeadow – where there is also an AirBnB-style overnight stay option – was that people arrived in their Teslas and other electric vehicles, attracted by the novel idea of a drive out to an interesting place for lunch or overnight stay where they can also get a convenient re-charge. He sees a future for GA airfields where motorists can drive up for the fun of it much like bikers currently do at weekends, plugging their cars into the same chargers which – on the other side of the fence – aircraft plug into to refuel. Like farmers diversifying their businesses to survive, he sees electric power points generating additional revenue streams for airfields.

It would be madness to ignore the potential of this technology, but these utopian visions are still a little way off yet. There is a lot of work to be done, and significant hurdles to overcome in order to prove that electric-powered aircraft can be both profitable and practical in the world of GA. Call me an optimist though, but personally I am fascinated and excited in equal measure about the future of this technology. 

What excites me most is that it isn’t just a concept – it’s being made reality right now, albeit on a small scale. At the time of writing, NEBOair have a ‘very supportive’ CAA working to fast-track the UK C of A for their first Velis (G-OGRN or ‘Go Green’). They have that aircraft on a Part-145 approval and have sent two engineers to Slovenia, where the Velis is built, in order to become the first two engineers in the UK certified to maintain an electric aircraft engine. G-OGRN is already at its new home at Damyn’s Hall aerodrome just outside London, and the charging stations are being installed at Shipmeadow and Wickenby, near Lincoln. 

So the future of GA could indeed be bright – and it could be green. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future I will be gazing out from the window at the distant Earth, utterly absorbed in the moment while a quiet, smooth electric motor drives me forward, fuelled by electricity generated by the wind-turbines I can see out on the horizon. Fuelled by the wind…now wouldn’t that be something?

Jack
Jack was lucky to get an early exposure to aviation, and now flies the 787 Dreamliner as a First Officer for a major UK-based passenger carrier. He is passionate about grass-roots flying and maintains a share in a Chipmunk. He is also a glider pilot, having represented the UK at glider aerobatics.

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