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Picture: 123RF/JAROMIR CHALABALA
Picture: 123RF/JAROMIR CHALABALA

An all-electric plane capable of carrying 100 people may be available within six years, significantly accelerating the timeline for the introduction of a non-kerosene-powered commercial airliner.

US start-up Wright Electric plans to retrofit electric motors into a BAe 146 regional aircraft originally manufactured by BAE Systems, replacing its four jet engines and transforming it into a zero-emissions model. 

Wright plans to build a fleet of the converted planes, which will have a range of about one hour or 740km, while using the revamped model — renamed the Spirit — as a stepping stone towards a previously planned clean-paper aircraft a few years later, CEO Jeffrey Engler said in an interview.

The strategy pivot, timed for the COP26 climate summit, could allow Wright to steal a march on established firms such as Airbus that are targeting electric or hydrogen-powered models by about 2035. The converted planes would be suited to linking close city pairs such as New York and Boston, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and many European locations currently served by regional jets, the Airbus A320 family or Boeing 737s.

“Customers are demanding cleaner options and we want to show there is an alternative,” Engler said. “A retrofit airplane is always going to suffer from disadvantages but at the same time it’s a certified aircraft.”

Viva and easyJet 

Wright is a long-time partner of discount airline easyJet, and the UK carrier will provide an operator’s perspective on requirements for the model. Mexican airline Viva Aerobus is also involved in the project.

The Los Angeles-based manufacturer, founded in 2016, ultimately aims to introduce its clean-paper Wright 1 design — a 186-seater with 1,287km range — in 2030. 

Wright’s plan does rely on advances in battery technology, the CEO said, with the retrofit model requiring slightly bigger motors than the two-megawatt system it’s currently testing. Hydrogen fuel cells or aluminium fuel cells could deliver the necessary 2.5MW-3MW capacity. 

The BAe 146 is considered to be ideal for Wright’s programme since it’s a relatively small aircraft that nevertheless has four engines, allowing flight tests to begin with a single electric motor in 2023 before moving to two in 2024 and four a year later.

The original 146 entered service in 1983 and ended production as the Avro in 2001. Its steep climb capabilities and relatively quiet operation saw the plane carve out a niche at urban airports such as London City, though remaining examples are scattered around the world.

The same model was chosen by Airbus and Rolls-Royce Holdings for the E-Fan X project — replacing one jet turbine with a single 2MW motor — ultimately abandoned in 2020.

Entrants in the race to build zero-emissions fixed-wing aircraft also include ZeroAvia and Heart Aerospace. 

Others are retrofitting smaller aircraft with electric or hybrid-electric motors.

MagniX, based near Seattle, is transforming nine-passenger Cessna Caravan commuter planes with a single electric motor in place of the usual turboprop engine. Fellow US start-up Ampaire is testing its motor in a five-passenger Cessna 337 Skymaster, replacing a piston engine.

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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