Editor’s Note: This story by Claire Potter first appeared in the Valley News on April 20th.
WEST LEBANON, New Hampshire — A white plane with wings up flew over the Connecticut River before a whisper-landing at Lebanon (NH) Municipal Airport on Friday. But its quiet landing belied the noise it makes for a Vermont company trying to disrupt a transportation arm that has previously eluded green alternatives.
The plane that landed in western Lebanon, the battery-powered ALIA-250c, was just 133 miles from Burlington, home of Beta Technologies, an aerospace company at the forefront of electric aircraft technology.
The ALIA had just completed its first flight to an airport outside of Beta’s testing facilities, then stopped for its layover in Lebanon before flying to Manchester, New Hampshire, and then back home to Burlington on Monday. A helicopter and a pursuit plane flew close behind to monitor his systems.
The ALIA-250c is a compact cargo aircraft with a 50-foot wingspan designed to travel at speeds of up to 270 km/h. On Friday, it hit a top speed of about 140 mph, according to FlightAware.
However, the defining feature of the ALIA is not its speed; it’s its emissions and efficiency.
ALIA’s designers modeled it after the arctic tern, a slender bird that migrates from pole to pole and flies up to 6,000 miles without feeding or resting. The nearly 7,000-pound plane can fly 250 nautical miles before recharging in about 50 minutes. It requires no jet fuel and emits no CO2 emissions.
Beta promises to put a dent in one of the most persistent sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have solutions for cars, trucks and shipping. We don’t have solutions in aviation,” Beta founder Kyle Clark said during a presentation last year.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that airplanes are responsible for 12% of US transportation emissions and 3% of the country’s total emissions.
And an airplane is much more difficult to electrify than a car, in part because batteries and energy storage require heavy machinery. An electric car is significantly heavier than its petrol engine, but that’s not an insurmountable dilemma for a land vehicle. However, airplanes require much more energy to hold more weight. Also, airplanes travel longer distances than cars, so their batteries need to last longer.
Beta isn’t just trying to save fuel; it seeks to save space.
ALIA’s developers plan for it to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, using the air as its runway. With this design, it will take up much less space than a traditional aircraft, allowing it to land in industrial plants, cities, and hospitals. One of its prototypes, which has flown at beta test facilities in Plattsburgh, New York, and Burlington, has this capability.
On Friday, however, Beta flew “serial number 1” which does not. The #1 has completed almost 200 test flights, the longest being 205 miles.
Beta promises its “elegant redundancy” will ensure safety and ease – all company employees are offered flying lessons.
Founded in 2017, Beta has raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Amazon, the United States Air Force, and private capital. UPS has also committed to purchasing Beta’s planes and plans for the first delivery of 10 planes in 2024. The small planes, each costing about $4 million, would land at UPS shipping facilities and load and help with that to fill fast deliveries and serve smaller communities. Beta’s first customer was United Therapeutics, a company that develops artificial organs and has funded several electric airplane startups that it hopes will someday supply its organs.
Beta is already building a national charging network. Nearly 60 charging stations are online or in the works, forming a network along the Atlantic Seaboard and Southeast, while another chain runs through upstate New York, Ohio, Indiana and Arkansas.
Roger Sharkey, the owner of West Lebanon-based Sharkey’s Helicopters, quickly agreed when Beta asked to use its equipment and personnel during the test flight. His company sells helicopter parts to Beta.
“It’s different,” Sharkey said. Its stillness and sleek, composite design impressed him.
If asked again to help with a test flight, “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
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