“We can just turn off the power while we finish getting ready.”
It took me a second to record what Andy Chan of Right Rudder Aviation wanted to say as we completed the pre-takeoff checklist steps. For a number of reasons – the electric motor doesn’t need to ‘warm up’ and we want to preserve every bit of battery juice for the flight ahead – it makes sense to ‘go back’ to zero once we’ve checked the battery status and a few other things.
Just one of many aha moments during my first electric flight in the Pipistrel Velis Electro.
A lot of questions
The Velis Electro has been EASA certified for over a year, and it operates under LSA rules in the United States. Can this all-electric plane hold its place in flight training right now? Or does it take another evolution of battery technology to find a place in a school’s lineup?
With the recent purchase of Pipistrel by Textron Aviation, these questions take on more importance. What exactly did TextAv get? Is the Velis Electro a solution for economical and sustainable flight training as-is, or has the company invested in a platform with limited applicability in pilot development programs, such as the Cessna Skycatcher seen?
take her to heaven
The act of flying requires engaging in the air and testing derived numbers on engineering blueprints. We can draw it, but until we put our souls in the seat, those numbers remain abstract.
So when Chan offered me a flight from Inverness Airport (KINF) in the Velis Electro after Sun ‘n Fun Aerospace Expo last week, I jumped at the chance. With caution? In the end, not really, and once we left the model with the plane, I understood why.
My mind went into “glider mode” – not because I lacked confidence in the electric powertrain in front of me, spinning a fixed-pitch three-bladed composite propeller, also made by Pipistrel. I’ve flown behind enough reciprocating engines to feel a healthy sense of skepticism about them. Props stop for many reasons. No, something else was going on in my pilot’s brain.
The Velis Electro has a maximum power rating of 65 kWh, which allows for fast takeoff (about 1,000 feet in the morning at 80 degrees F) and an initial climb at sea level similar to that of a Cessna 152. But as most motors, you don’t keep the motor running at full power for very long if you want to have range, or if you want to preserve the life of the motor.
After reaching 75 knots indicated and a few hundred feet agl, Chan asked me to bring the lever down to 40 kWh, more than enough to support our climb at a comfortable speed. Our stamina went from just 24 minutes to around 35 minutes. Once I reached 2,500 ft msl, I reduced the power again to 20kWh, and we had 45 minutes, with 80% battery life remaining (there are two sets in the cell).
We had already operated as a “flight lesson” for about 15 minutes, if you include normal engine start, taxi, run-up, takeoff and climb for an average practice flight. I had the plane perform a series of maneuvers – slow flight, steep turns, stalls and a lazy eight, for the smiles – and we still had time to play around before having to go back to the pattern for a few landings. It sounded like the outline of a normal pre-solo lesson.
Looking for an elevator
But there was an additional factor that I hadn’t considered until I was scouring the central Florida landscape for cloudy streets: we could save time in the air if we could find lift. . I started to think back to my initial glider training and remembered how every flight started, once out of tow, with the same search and calculation to gain a little more time at altitude.
It felt quite comfortable, provided I stayed within my mental reach of the airport. And I mentioned it to Chan, and he agreed – he’s a glider instructor as well as an airplane CFI – that glider pilots would probably understand the concept of power (and lift) management better than most others passing by on the plane.
And then I thought, “Why don’t we train all of our students to think about endurance this way?” Maybe some instructors do. Fuel exhaustion accidents represent an embarrassing percentage of those that general aviation suffers each year. We could rethink this area of decision making – there’s nothing magic about dead dinosaur juice to extend the range of aircraft beyond a hard limit.
What about cross-country flights?
Chan is at the forefront of the Velis Electro’s place in his flight school – as a pre-solo trainer supplemented by the Electro’s traditionally powered Virus, with a Rotax 912 S3 engine) for the part program cross country.
He argues that the current Velis Electro serves as an intermediate step that allows aviation training organizations (ATOs) to reduce costs and carbon footprint on the way to a zero-emissions world in the future.
He adds to this a plan to integrate solar power into the physical factory of Right Rudder Aviation in the short term. As he towed the Velis Electro to Inverness from Lakeland after the show, he could have made the flight comfortably, in his opinion he just had too many planes to move around in the post-event shuffle.
But what about charging?
If there’s a big hurdle to using the Velis Electro in its current mode, it’s the delay incurred by having to fully charge the battery between flights, a process that takes between one and two hours, depending on the socket and charging unit used. While a one hour turnaround is no exaggeration – given how long it often takes to call the tanker and make the debriefing/re-briefing exchange typical at many schools – two hours represent a long wait between classes.
Battery swapping is a future solution to this, or staggering lessons between the Velis Electro and its traditionally powered partner. But it still feels like it would work well — for now — in a boutique operation rather than a high-volume ATO or college program.
The Velis Electro has an empty weight of approximately 940 pounds (with batteries). Maximum weight is artificially limited to 1,320 pounds, when used as an S-LSA in the United States. Due to its provenance and EASA certification, it likely has room to grow beyond that. But Chan wouldn’t say it yet.
For the moment
The Velis Electro is fun to ride, with benign handling characteristics and should fit well into a primary training program. Will its specific application be enough for early adoption schools to take it on? This can be answered in part by the strong interest that Chan says has been expressed by such organizations at Sun ‘n Fun this year.
Altogether, we need these intermediate steps to progress on our path to sustainable aviation. I feel this challenge is ripe for an S-leap in technology or more creative solutions such as the one currently underway with Pipistrel.