Unless you’ve been living under a rock, aviation is not only undergoing its third revolution, with electricity this time, but history was made on Tuesday, December 10, in Vancouver, Canada, when Harbour Air took off in a seaplane using electricity. The maiden electric seaplane flight is a sweet wink at commercial aviation history, which started with seaplanes.
Aviation history was made on December 10th when Harbour Air Seaplanes CEO Greg McDougall took to the sky with a converted electric de Havilland DHC-2 with the help of magniX. Additionally, the company previously announced it was switching its fleet to electricity. I got a hold of Greg and spent a few minutes asking him why, how, and when we can look forward to more good news.
We started with the practical questions, such as why he’s working on electrifying his seaplanes? He told me he was one of the first Tesla owners in Vancouver, Canada, and that he felt electricity needed to cross over to aircraft. I knew we would get along at that point, since I’ve been wondering about the same for years.
McDougall says his company, Harbour Air, has a unique situation that helps in this regard. His network is tight, condensed, and operates a fleet of single-engine aircraft. After initial research, the project seemed doable and practical. Harbour Air has a commercial average flight range of 110 kilometers (65 miles). The electric seaplane payload is very close to reality, enough to power the aircraft for a 100 kilometer (60 mile) flight. As the team wondered how they should go about it, magniX stepped into the picture. It had already started working on the electrification of aviation and said it could convert Harbour Air’s DHC-2 within 8 to 10 months. Both teams worked together to bring us aviation history a week ago. McDougall said it was inspiring to see the two teams working together considering they didn’t know each other and came from such different backgrounds.
As to why use a seaplane for an electric conversion, McDougall said seaplanes are extremely practical since you can bring the aircraft down over water almost anywhere in case of an emergency. The same can’t be said with a ground-landing aircraft that needs a dedicated runway. That widens the test envelop with more leeway. He also told me that his docks are already wired and can deliver a lot of amperage, perfect for his future fleet electrification.
The maiden electric seaplane flight was done using relatively low-energy-density lithium-ion batteries. It was more of a proof of concept that shows it is not only possible but feasible. Although McDougall couldn’t give details on the batteries, he said they offered a 100-kilometer range. This should easily grow to twice as much, including passengers and greater payload, with a next-generation more energy-dense battery pack.
The next step is certification, something every electric aviation project is intensely focusing on. McDougall says they are working with the local Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and addressing each topic as it comes. So far, the converted DCH-2 has enough energy for a 30-minute flight, including a mandatory 30-minute reserve.
Finally, I asked why use a DHC-2 since there are more slippery choices out there. McDougall was very straightforward and said they have a few that are not used as much as they could be. Those became a logical choice. The DHC-2 is a workhorse of an airplane, and even if it is over 60, it is taken apart regularly and rebuilt. There is very high familiarity with the DCH-2, and it is a robust airplane. It is the ideal testbed aircraft, and electricity can give it a second life. It is also an excellent short takeoff & landing (STOL) aircraft, which helps for testing a new energy propulsion platform.
I asked McDougall what’s his first thought of the day that gets him out of bed. He said it’s mostly being thankful to be here at 63 to witness this next phase of aviation. But he also said that it’s mostly looking forward to the new challenges ahead. Well answered!
What was it Nikola Tesla said in 1926? “Perhaps the most valuable application of wireless energy will be the propulsion of flying machines, which will carry no fuel and will be free from any limitations of the present airplanes and dirigibles.”