An electric plane flight over Elk Grove that was to be part of a larger, historic tour was canceled last week due to technical difficulties.
Scheduled to leave Lodi for Sacramento on July 15, the plane had its schedule altered, and later flew to Modesto instead. The plane was in the process of making aviation history for the longest solar-powered flight in a production, electric aircraft.
Elk Grove resident Thom Taylor, who owns a hangar at the Sacramento Executive Airport, was among the people in a small group at that airport who awaited the plane that never arrived.
Taylor explained the magnitude of the technology of electric airplanes that are powered by solar energy.
“If you can get (the energy) from the sun, that’s all free; it’s cost-effective,” he said. “The idea of solar power then being transferred into aviation, I think that’s going to be a very new industry coming up.
“There’s going to be a lot of testing, there’s going to be a lot of trials and errors of running an efficient aircraft or even an airline using electric power. It’s in its infancy. It’s just being born, so it’s just going to have to take time to grow, and it will. It’s a viable project that I think is going to take over a lot of the old gasoline or diesel propulsion (airplanes).”
In making his historic tour, pilot and aviation instructor Joseph Oldham, of Fresno, took off from the Fresno Chandler Executive Airport in an electric aircraft bound for multiple cities on July 14.
After making stops in Madera, Merced, Modesto and Lodi, the two-seat plane – a Pipistrel Alpha Electro – was scheduled to arrive at the Executive Airport during the following morning.
However, Gill Wright, vice president of Region 2 of the California Pilots Association, announced at the hangar on July 15 that the plane would not be arriving.
“(The plane) ran into some technical difficulties (causing it to) not be able to do the final leg up here to Sacramento,” he said. “It happens in aviation. You know, safety first, because there’s a truth in aviation: ‘Take offs are optional, landings are mandatory.’ We want a landing to be in a controlled environment in the pilot’s choice.”
Wright spoke about the significance of the aircraft’s historic tour.
“(The plane is) traveling by the sun’s energy,” he said. “This is like the Wright brothers’ first hop at Kitty Hawk on Dec. 17, 1903. These hops that Joseph has done here in California’s Central Valley is the first that we know of by solar power. That’s huge, absolutely huge.”
In Oldham’s preflight log, he recorded plans to total 270 miles after returning to Fresno.
Even without his flight over Elk Grove, Oldham made history with flights to the other cities. He returned to Modesto, Merced and Madera before landing in Fresno to complete his journey.
Since Oldham was unavailable for comment as of press time, Wright shared some details about this pilot of electric aircraft.
“He has a consortium of people to help buy these aircraft and he’s working with the (Federal Aviation Administration) to get them certificated, so that they can do flight training with these birds,” he said. “Pipistrel Alpha Electros are being used for flight training in Europe.”
He added that an Alpha Electro electric airplane is a production plane, as opposed to an experimental aircraft, which is a one-of-a-kind crafted machine.
“This is something anyone could purchase and use for flight,” he said.
Wright mentioned that these electric planes fly for about an hour on a single charge, and depending on the charge rate, it can take from 50 minutes to two hours to charge a battery to full strength.
The electric airplanes that Oldham charges, Wright emphasized, are completely powered by the sun – with no power coming from the electric grid.
Wright stressed that electric airplanes are the wave of the future in aviation.
“A good example is I saw some photos of what was Easter on Park Avenue (in) 1900,” he said. “Horse-drawn carriages everywhere in New York. A decade later, it was cars that people were going to Easter Sunday with, and we’re at that kind of inflection point right now with the electrification of aviation.
“That is very parallel to what aviation went through in the late 1920s through the mid-1930s, with incredible changes of air frames, power plant systems. Because, prior to (the legendary aviator) Charles Lindbergh, aircraft were basically made of wood or welded tubes covered with fabric.”
After that point, sheet aluminum began being used in the construction of aircraft.
Wright mentioned that the Redmond, Washington-based firm, MagniX, is flight testing an electrical-powered Cessna Caravan aircraft with batteries.
He noted that the same company is interested in using hydrogen fuel cells as an energy source to power planes.
Wright also said that in the future, aviation companies will financially benefit from electric aircraft.
“One of the important things to consider is the cost of jet fuel, plus maintenance of these aircraft are quite high,” he said. “Electric aircraft are much, much simpler, and operators of these air firms are looking to be able to have these operating costs cut by anywhere from 50% to 75%, and to reduce their maintenance costs by 50%.”
The Associated Press reported last week that United Airlines is investing in the Sweden-based Heart Aerospace, which is seeking to build electric-powered aircraft that United believes could potentially carry passengers short distances by the end of this decade.
It is noted in that report that United has “conditionally agreed” to purchase 100 of these 19-seat planes.
Under that condition, those planes would need to meet certain standards and desires of that airline.
Wright also referred to electric aviation as “profoundly transformational.”
“There are a lot of very smart people and a lot of deep pools of capital that are realizing they can make a better product, and to be able to bring it to make transportation and commerce work better for people,” he said. “And that’s what is really, really amazing to see.”
Bill Wheelock, a Mather resident who resides on land formerly occupied by base housing at Mather Air Force Base, was among the people who waited at the Executive Airport for the electric airplane to arrive.
He told the Citizen that he was disappointed that he did not have the opportunity to witness an electric plane landing in Sacramento.
“I’m disappointed it’s not here yet, but that’s not unusual for small aircraft,” he said. “Not that anything bad happened. Stuff happens and schedules change, and one thing leads to another and here you are.”
Wheelock added that he is excited about the technology of electric planes.
“I’ve been a pilot for over 40 years,” he said. “I have an interest in aviation, obviously, and I’m always interested in new technologies. An electric airplane, even though it won’t replace getting from here to the East Coast, it will at least get me from small airport to where the big airplanes go.
“I’m really thrilled with the prospect of electric airplanes, which will mean more economical and cleaner ways to generate electricity. That’s a great benefit.”