Hawthorne-based Ampaire Inc. is once again flying solo as it attempts to become one of the first companies to achieve revenue operation with partially electrified aircraft.
A year ago, Ampaire had agreed to merge with private air carrier Surf Air Mobility Corp., also based in Hawthorne. That deal would have given Ampaire a ready-made fleet to convert to hybrid gas-electric power trains and quickly put back into operation.
But that deal fell through in March as the two companies decided to part ways in their pursuit of low – or no – carbon-emitting aircraft. Neither company would provide details on the termination of the merger.
Ampaire is pursuing its hybrid gas-electric engine strategy on its own, and last month began ground testing a Cessna Caravan aircraft that it converted to a hybrid gas-electric power train.
The goal: to get the aircraft – which Ampaire has dubbed “Eco-Caravan” – fully certified to fly with the hybrid engine by the end of 2024.
“Our mission is to decarbonize traditional aviation,” said Kevin Noertker, Ampaire’s chief executive.
Surf Air, meanwhile, had counted on using Ampaire as its means to low-carbon-emitting flights. Now, it’s searching for another way to electrify its fleet. Spokeswoman Katie Pribyl said Surf Air expects to have some announcements “soon” on its moves in the aircraft electrification arena.
Noertker, an aerospace engineer who had worked at Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman Corp., teamed up with fellow Northrop Grumman engineer Cory Combs to found Ampaire in 2016. From the outset, Ampaire’s goal was simple: to be the first to market with hybrid gas-electric aircraft.
In recent years, the headlines have been grabbed by developers of fully electric aircraft, some with vertical takeoff and landing. But fully electric aircraft have range and weight limitations. Most of the batteries that are now being tested for all-electric aircraft have a maximum range of 200 miles between charges, according to Marty Bradley, an aerospace industry veteran-turned consultant who is also an adjunct professor in aerospace and mechanical engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. For the Southern California market, that means mostly short-hop regional trips, such as from Santa Monica to Palm Springs.
That’s one reason why many companies are pursuing the potential air taxi market using vertical takeoffs and landings, much like the fictional early-1960s Jetsons television series. One such company is Santa Cruz-based Joby Aviation Inc.
Some companies are taking other approaches to zero carbon-emission air travel.
For example, Venice-based Universal Hydrogen Co. is experimenting with hydrogen fuel. Universal Hydrogen in October raised $62 million in funding for testing of its hydrogen fuel cell retrofits to regional general aviation aircraft.
Ampaire’s hybrid gas-electric power train has a range of about 500 miles, similar to the internal combustion engine counterpart for small and mid-sized general aviation aircraft, Bradley said.
“With a hybrid engine, from a Southern California perspective, that puts cities like San Francisco and Reno in play, and maybe even a bit farther than that,” he said.
What’s more, for the most part, hybrid gas-electric power trains for aircraft appear to be able to be brought to market sooner, especially for a company such as Ampaire that is converting existing aircraft instead of building new craft from scratch.
Summing up the hybrid strategy, Bradley said, “It’s the Toyota Prius approach to decarbonizing air travel.”
Like the various trim lines for the Prius, Noertker said there are several modes of hybrid air travel. Takeoffs use both the conventional internal combustion engine and batteries for maximum power. Cruising can be all-electric or with limited reliance on the gas engine; just how much the gas engine would be used would depend on the size and weight of the aircraft, the distance traveled and whether the aircraft encounters severe headwinds. On landing, just like in the Prius, applying the brakes pumps energy back into the battery – a process known as regenerative braking.
Noertker said this technology dovetails with another advantage of the hybrid approach: the limited need to charge the aircraft.
“Right now, there is very limited charging infrastructure available on the ground for aircraft,” he said. “That contributes to range anxiety for all-electric aircraft. With our hybrid aircraft, if you need to charge at all when on the ground, it may only need to be for a short time.”
For most of the last three years, Ampaire has been testing aircraft it has converted to hybrid gas-electric power trains. First came an adapted six-seat Cessna Skymaster aircraft that Ampaire dubbed the “Electric EEL.” And now, the beginning of testing for the Cessna “EcoCaravan,” which can seat as many as nine passengers.
The goal, Noertker said, is to have a range of general aviation aircraft to convert to hybrid gas-electric power trains and then bring to market.
“We’re assembling the building blocks of the electrification component of the industry,” he said.
The fact that all of the aircraft are existing models that Ampaire has been modifying – as opposed to entirely new design aircraft – is a crucial time-saver, said Edward Story, a local general aviation activist and consultant who sits on the boards of the California Pilots Association and the Santa Monica Airport Association.
Most of the electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft being developed are designing their air frames from the ground up, he said.
“Ampaire’s vision and approach is to adapt the propulsion mechanism to an increasingly wide variety of already-certified air frames. This reduces exponentially the design work,” Story said.
First mover position?
What’s more, taking an existing aircraft body frame through the Federal Aviation Administration certification process should be another time-saver, according to fellow consultant Bradley.
“Ampaire had taken the approach of converting existing airplanes and getting supplemental certification,” he said. “That may go quicker than taking a whole new aircraft to the FAA for certification.
But so far, at least, rapid certification has not been in the cards for Ampaire. One difficulty: being one of the first in the pipeline for certification of hybrid gas-electric aircraft has meant setting standards for both the industry and the FAA to follow. That has proven time-consuming and a source of certification delays.
Bradley said that in Ampaire’s early days, five years ago, it had the hybrid aircraft field virtually to itself. But over the last three years, other players have entered the fray, such as Daytona Beach, Fla.-based VerdeGo Aero.
“The key realization over that time is that fully-electric aircraft probably will not be able to serve anything beyond the very short-hop market,” Bradley said. “So regional airlines and other companies are looking at other technologies – including hybrid – to serve their markets.”
That has set up a race to get aircraft certified for revenue operation by the FAA, and beyond that, to reach deals with regional airlines to start greening their fleets.
“Ampaire has been doing this longer than almost anyone else, so that should give them a leg up.”