The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is slowly warming up to electric aircraft, but regulatory approval takes far too long.
Joseph Oldham, the New Vision Aviation CEO, is a strong proponent behind the multi-city Sustainable Aviation Project. He is petitioning the FAA for a recertification of 4 idle Pipistrel Alpha Electros. The petition asks for the FAA to recertify the trainer electric airplanes into SLSA and away from the “experimental” status.
Pipistrel Designed The Perfect Electric Trainer — When Can It Be Used For That?
I visited some of the Pipistrel Alpha Aeros and Rotax electric airplanes at the Fullerton, California airport. The cool Fullerton airport sports the usual gasoline airplanes, but they are a strange contrast when hearing the quiet of the Pipistrel Alpha Electro. It is whisper-quiet, and I’m told can easily climb 800 to 1200 fpm (feet per minute) depending on the payload. Pipistrel officially says 1000 fpm. This is far better than almost any similar internal combustion engine (ICE) aircraft.
The Electro can also take off on shorter runways with little noise for roughly the same price as a similar ICE airplane. It beats any aviation gasoline (AG) aircraft when it comes to maintenance. Pipistrel says you can fly the Electro for about €1 per hour, or $1.20 an hour. To put minds at rest, it has an endurance of one hour plus a 30-minute reserve, as per FAA requirements. Up to 13% of its energy can be recuperated on every approach.
Technically, the electric Alpha has a Pipistrel PEM 60MVLC motor that peaks at 60 kW. It is more powerful than the Rotax 912 series. It uses a 21 kWh battery pack that is dual-redundant and designed to be quickly swappable. It can be recharged in less than an hour at 350 kW. It is light with a basic empty weight (with batteries) of 368 kg (811 lb), and a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 550 kg (1,102 lb) with a payload of 182 kg (401 lb).
To be fair, the FAA has its hands full these days. It is investigating electric airplanes and making sense of even more pressing issues.
Nonetheless, at stake for Pipistrel is the Special Category Light-Sport Aircraft (SLSA) designation, a highly sought-after airworthiness certificate for light-sport aircraft. It is issued to those that meet the definition of light-sport aircraft (LSA). So far, the Pipistrel Alpha Electros only have the restrictive Experimental status. They can’t be used for training in the US, which is what they were designed for. These 4 US Pipistrel Alpha Electros can only be flown privately, not for commercial purposes.
An easier path to SLSA status would open the doors to flying electric airplanes and training planes. A new generation of pilots would have an easier and more affordable way to get into the aviation industry. Considering that the aviation industry is finding it more difficult to find pilots, this makes perfect sense in an otherwise less than perfect scenario. On a personal note, I could visit family, friends, and fly into airports to cover UAM news. The more I think about it, the more pressing the idea is becoming.
The other hidden problem is that electrifying aviation and going through the many years required for certification means that the technology certified will be obsolete by the time it is approved. Electric aviation is like what desktop computers were a few decades ago, upgradeable if it is to be financially worthwhile.
The Pipistrel Alpha Electro Brings Back The Heydays of Aviation Pioneering
Besides the regulation matter, not many aviation schools train mechanics for electric airplanes. The petition to the FAA could help to revitalize the personal aviation industry again. While it’s easy to blame the FAA for everything under the sun, flying is safer today than it was. At the same time, aviation is still reeling from the last government shutdown and recurring understaffing of the FAA.
After my talks with Ivo Boscarol, Pipistrel founder and CEO, we know clients are ready to buy the Alpha Electro and other electric aircraft the company has, but it’s unclear how long they’ll have to wait FAA approval.
Pipistrel designed a terrific electric aircraft trainer. The Alpha Electro was designed for traffic-pattern operations, perfect for aviation training schools. It is also perfect for those of us who have held out on a pilot license for decades. It’s puzzling as to why the FAA hasn’t granted these electric airplanes the more desired SLSA certification as it quickly does for aviation gasoline aircraft.
All images courtesy Pipistrel