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On the 10th of December 2019, the time had finally come: The world’s first purely electrically powered commercial flight took place in Canada. Welcome to a new era in flight history.

A round over the Fraser River

The world’s first fully-electric commercial aircraft made its maiden flight in Canada on the 10th of December 2019. The DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver, a seaplane converted to electric propulsion, took off from Harbour Air Seaplanes Terminal in Richmond (YVR) and completed a ten-minute lap over the Fraser River. Greg McDougall, founder and CEO of Harbour Air, sat at the wheel. The Canadian company operates the largest fleet of seaplanes in North America.

Founded in 1982, the company operates a total of 40 seaplanes, most of them the mentioned Beaver, which finished more than 300 scheduled flights a week between twelve destinations in the Vancouver/Seattle metropolitan region. Added to this are charter and sightseeing flights. Harbour Air describes itself as CO²-neutral because it pays for CO²-reducing measures.

A Maximum of 30 Minutes

The airline has removed the conventional engine from Beaver, which was built in 1957, and replaced it with a 750 hp magni500 propulsion system from the Seattle-based manufacturer magniX. The system also includes batteries that last for 30 minutes flight plus 30 minutes reserve. This gives the seaplane, designed for six passengers, a maximum range of 160 kilometres. In its appearance, it reminds a little of the “Alpha Electro” of the Slovenian company Pipistrel. (link to your flying with zero emissions article (see below)) 

For much more than one lap over the Fraser River it is not enough yet, because the battery power is the limiting parameter. Harbour Air could use an electric aircraft to serve only those routes that take about 20 minutes, for example from Vancouver’s inner-city port (CXH) to Nanaimo (ZNA) on Vancouver Island, or from Vancouver International Seaplane Base (CAM-9) to Salt Spring Island (YGG). The distances between the mainland and Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, or even Seattle are too long.

The licensing procedure requires further testing and patience

But first, it is necessary to prove the traffic capability of the electric Beaver. The flight on the 10th of December was the first of a series of test flights. It will take another two years before the aircraft can be considered reliable and safe. Furthermore, engine construction needs the necessary certificates. If everything goes smoothly, the first electric scheduled flights should be carried out in 2022. Harbour Air hopes for some progress in battery technology in the meantime to be able to offer longer routes electrically.

Whether Harbour Air will then also offer the world’s first scheduled electric flight has not yet been decided, because other airlines have concrete plans to offer very short scheduled flights completely electrically, too. For example, the Scottish regional airline Loganair, which, according to the Guinness World Record, offers the shortest scheduled flight in the world. The propeller plane can cover the distance of only three kilometres between the islands of Westray and Papa Westray in less than three minutes, in good winds even in just one minute. The Institute of Aerospace Engineering at the British University of Cranfield is working on the project. Including the necessary certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the year 2023 is currently assumed to be the start of scheduled electric flights.

We are facing an exciting race…