The founder and chief executive of battery plane maker BETA, Kyle Clark, says the aircraft are a bit like a Tesla of the air.
The Vermont-based firm has been chosen by Air New Zealand to supply trial aircraft for its regional network, with the first plane due to carry freight only from 2026. NZ Post has been announced as a cargo partner for its commercial demonstrator.
Clark, a Harvard graduate and former professional ice hockey player, was in Auckland for the announcement.
He’s flown the prototype of BETA’s ALIA on hundreds of test flights and the plane has clocked up the equivalent distance of a return flight between the United States and this country.
The conventional take-off and landing plane - modelled on the Arctic tern - is incredibly quiet, said Clark.
‘‘The pilot feels as one with the plane through a pressure-based stick that they push the plane around the sky with. It’s all fly-by-wire so you have this clear connection - we call it control harmony - with the plane and that’s a big focus for me as a pilot,’' he said.
Seven-year-old BETA was one of the few battery companies that is flying manned flights consistently. It’s been testing them for the last four years.
‘‘We have had lots of time on the stick and making the plane elegant - the thing that captivates people is the absence of sound, hearing the wind and the visibility. It makes me smile to think about flying.’'
Clark said it was like driving an electric car in two ways - the quiet and almost instant acceleration with a rate of climb far quicker than traditional planes.
‘’The access to excess torque to climb or to get over hills or to get out of the weather is much greater and it’s instantaneous. There’s no spool-up time as compared to a fuel-burning aircraft. The noise and the acceleration is much like a Tesla.’'
He said it was also like a Tesla and other electric vehicles in that it needs less maintenance. The prototype has 13,000 major maintenance free hours on its single rear-mounted engine while similar fossil fuel-powered planes typically needed maintenance every 3000 hours.
The maintenance becomes ‘’insignificant’' because nothing’s getting hot and parts aren’t subject to caustic gases to wear things out.
Air New Zealand has a firm order for one aircraft with options for an additional two aircraft, and rights for a further 20 aircraft. While the prototype would have room for six passengers, future models will be able to carry more.
The prototype can fly up to 14,500 ft, (4400m) because it isn’t pressurised. Its climb rate is 1700 feet a minute and Clark said its longest test flight is 336 nautical miles (611km) on a single charge.
It flies at around 240km/h says Clark whose company is just about to move into full production in a new facility that will be capable of making up to 300 of the planes a year. The plane is believed to cost between $3 million and $4.5m.
The cost of fueling the plane in the United States is a fraction of a traditional aircraft. A full charge of electricity costs US$17 ($27) while it would cost about US$1000 to fill an equivalent plane with traditional fuel.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said it was still too early to know how this would impact airfares.
The electric plane programme - and other alternatives such as hydrogen power - would need to be scaled up.
‘‘It’s hard to comment on what the final cost looks like. But when you take in the cost of fossil fuels and then you take into account the issues around carbon this is a really good alternative that we need to pursue.’'
Clark said BETA planes flying at present weren’t meant to cover every application, but this was why New Zealand was a good place to launch commercial cargo flights over relatively short distances.
He said he applauded the airline’s approach to decarbonisation and during the last year its operational requirements as it also assessed three competitors’ aircraft.
Routes were being selected through an expression of interest across Aotearoa. It would reveal two front-runner airports next year.
Foran said the deal cements Air NZ’s commitment to flying lower-emissions aircraft.
“This is a small but important step in a much larger journey for Air New Zealand,’' he said.