Universal Hydrogen Co. has completed the flight of a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.
The Hawthorne-based company conducted the flight earlier this month under a special airworthiness certificate issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. It was the first mission in a two-year flight test program, according to the company.
The test program is expected to culminate in 2025 with the entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional turbo-prop aircraft converted to run on hydrogen. Universal Hydrogen has a growing order book of 247 aircraft conversions for 16 customers totaling more than $1 billion in conversions and more than $2 billion in fuel services.
In addition to developing the kits to convert planes to hydrogen, the company is also creating modular hydrogen capsules to move over the existing freight network from production directly to the ATR 72.
Universal Hydrogen unveiled in December the first operational tests of its modular hydrogen delivery system at its engineering center in Toulouse, France. Those tests demonstrated a scalable approach to hydrogen delivery to airports and into the aircraft, eliminating the need for new infrastructure.
Paul Eremenko, co-founder and chief executive of Universal Hydrogen, said that the company’s business model solves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen planes and fueling infrastructure. Both are developed in parallel with a low-cost approach, he said.
“The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand-new airplane,” Eremenko said. “And hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”
In the first test flight, one of the De Havilland Dash 8-300 turbine engines was replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric powertrain. The other remained a conventional engine for safety of flight.
The airplane, nicknamed Lightning McClean, took off from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 mean sea level. The plane was flown by Alex Kroll, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot and the company’s chief test pilot.
Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia International Airlines, the US and European launch customers for the hydrogen airplanes, respectively, were on hand to witness the flight. Amelia, owned by the Paris-based Regourd Aviation Group, signed an agreement with Universal Hydrogen last year to provide three of the conversion kits for its airplanes.
Connect, a division of Boston-based Waltzing Matilda Aviation, announced in June that the airline had placed a firm order to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains, with purchase rights for an additional 25 conversions. Deliveries will begin in 2025.