Monday, July 15

Electric Planes, Once a Fantasy, Start to Take to the Skies

Chris Caputo stood on the tarmac at Burlington International Airport in Vermont in early October and looked to the clouds in the distance. He had piloted military and commercial aircraft over a long career, racking up thousands of flight hours, but the trip he was about to take would be very different.

That’s because the airplane Mr. Caputo would fly runs on batteries. Over the next 16 days, he and his colleagues flew the plane, a CX300 built by their employer, Beta Technologies, down the East Coast. They would make nearly two dozen stops to rest and recharge, flying through congested airspace in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities.

When the journey came to an end in Florida, Beta handed the plane over to the Air Force, which will experiment with it over the next few months. The trip offered a vision of what aviation could look like years from now — one in which the skies are filled with aircraft that do not emit the greenhouse gases that are dangerously warming up the Earth.

“We’re doing some really meaningful work for our state, our country and the planet,” Mr. Caputo said. “It’s hard not to want to be a part of it.”

For most of aviation history, electric aircraft have been little more than a fantasy. But technological advancements, particularly in batteries, and billions of dollars of investment have helped make short-distance electric air travel feasible — and, its backers hope, commercially viable.

Beta, which is privately held, has raised more than $800 million from investors like Fidelity, Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and the private equity firm TPG Capital. The company employs about 600 people, mostly in Vermont, and recently finished building a factory in Burlington where it plans to mass produce its aircraft, which have yet to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The first will be the CX300, a sleek, futuristic plane with a 50-foot wingspan, large curved windows and a rear propeller. That plane is designed to carry about 1,250 pounds of cargo and will be followed soon after by the A250, which shares about 80 percent of the CX300’s design and is outfitted with lift rotors to take off and land like a helicopter. Both aircraft, which Beta markets as the Alia, will eventually carry passengers, the company says.

Beta is one of many companies working on electric aviation. In California, Joby Aviation and Archer Aviation are developing battery-powered aircraft capable of vertical flight that, they say, will ferry a handful of passengers short distances. Those companies have backers like Toyota, Stellantis, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and large investment firms. Established manufacturers like Airbus, Boeing and Embraer are also working on electric aircraft.

The U.S. government has mobilized behind the industry, too. The F.A.A. aims to support operations of aircraft that use new means of propulsion at scale in one or more places by 2028. And the Air Force is awarding contracts and testing vehicles, including Beta’s CX300 and an aircraft that Joby delivered to Edwards Air Force Base in California in September.

Beta’s plane is not as large and powerful as the jets that Mr. Caputo flew for the Air Force, Air National Guard or Delta. But what it lacks in heft, it makes up for in charm, he said, noting that the airplane is incredibly quiet and responsive, making it a pleasure to fly.

“You’re almost one with the plane,” Mr. Caputo said, adding later: “You can kind of hear and feel the air going across the flight control surfaces. We wear helmets right now because it’s experimental and safety is paramount, but we can literally take the helmets off in the aircraft and just talk to one another.”

Mr. Caputo said the CX300 and other electric aircraft could open up new opportunities, like better connecting rural areas that have little or no direct air service.

Beta’s airplane has flown as far as 386 miles on a single charge, but the company said it expects its customers to generally use it to carry out trips of 100 to 150 miles. The plane’s journey to Florida was allowed under limited authority granted by the F.A.A.

In addition to producing no emissions, electric aircraft are designed to be simpler to operate and maintain than conventional helicopters and planes. But they are not expected to take to the skies in large numbers for years. Initially, their trips are likely to be short — from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport, for example, or Burlington to Syracuse, N.Y.

Modern batteries can support limited range and weight. As a result, the aircraft that they power can generally carry only a handful of passengers, or the equivalent load in cargo.

Early on, electric aircraft are expected to compete mainly with helicopters and cars and trucks. In cities, widespread flights won’t be possible without expanded infrastructure like vertical landing and takeoff sites and public support. The cost of producing such aircraft will also be high to start, limiting their use to the well-heeled and to critical services like medical evacuations, experts said.

In some ways, the challenge and the promise of electric aviation today are like those of the automobile at the turn of the 20th century, said Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, an aviation consulting firm.

“You had several hundred manufacturers around the world, all with their own unique approaches to making these machines, but you didn’t have the roads, you didn’t have traffic lights, you didn’t have insurance,” he said. But, he added, the industry eventually found its way. “Things settled down 20 years later, and eventually costs fell, and winners emerged. And it changed the way things were done, the way people lived.”

Kyle Clark, Beta’s founder, is attuned to those concerns, which is why he says that Beta has taken a more methodical approach.

“I get it, the industry has a trust issue,” he said. “It’s too much change, too quick, in an industry that has an exceptionally high standard of safety.”

The company plans first to win F.A.A. certification next year for a motor it has developed, followed by approvals of its first and second aircraft in subsequent years. The CX300 will use runways to move cargo, avoiding the need for new infrastructure, Mr. Clark said.

That approach has been endorsed by several customers, according to Beta, including the shipping giant UPS and United Therapeutics, which plans to use the vehicles to transport organs for transplant. Bristow Group, another customer, plans to use the aircraft the way it uses helicopters today, to transport goods and people to offshore energy installations, run search and rescue missions for governments, and for other purposes.

Bristow, which is working with eight companies developing next-generation aircraft, expects the vehicles to create new opportunities because they are quieter than helicopters and are expected to be 60 to 70 percent cheaper to operate, according to David Stepanek, an executive vice president at Bristow.

In addition to building aircraft, Beta is establishing a network of chargers that can power its aircraft as well as cars, trucks and other vehicles. More than a dozen have been set up, including one at the Air Force site in Florida, making it the military’s first electric aircraft charging station.

The company also built a prototype landing site for aircraft capable of vertical flight, which sits atop repurposed shipping containers, which house energy storage and a small living space for pilots to rest between trips.

The day that Beta’s aircraft left Burlington in October, Mr. Caputo flew it on two legs, arriving at sunset at Griffiss International Airport in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, near where he grew up. He ordered Italian food for the Beta team from a restaurant he used to frequent with his family, and his mother drove out to see the aircraft in person for the first time. The next morning, he flew the plane to Syracuse, N.Y., and handed it over to colleagues who would fly it the rest of the way.

Much of the popular discussion about electric aircraft revolves around the idea that they will effectively be used as flying cars to whiz people around big cities. In the near future, though, they may just as likely be used to ferry goods and passengers outside dense urban areas, in places like upstate New York and Vermont.

“To me, it’s going to have a really meaningful impact on how we move organs and goods and services,” he said, “and reconnect the rural parts of America that I think get often forgotten.”