(Photo: Courtesy of Bye Aerospace.)

When the pilot guides the electric airplane from its hangar, there is only a light whirring of propellers instead of the roar of an engine. And it leaves no exhaust in its wake as it takes off from a small air strip south of Denver. The small plane, the eFlyer, is the first all-electric plane to seek FAA certification and its builders hope it will revolutionize the aviation industry as the first commercial electric airplane.

“Electric motors are not new,” said George Bye, President of Bye Aerospace and the airplane’s creator. “But the application to airplanes is remarkable, and until recently most people thought it was impossible.”

Bye, who started working to develop the plane 12 years ago, said it took a transformation in battery and engine technology to make the eFlyer possible. While cars have long been able to carry heavy batteries and engines, airplanes must be aerodynamic and light. Bye completed his design once batteries and electric engines became small enough. The eFlyer is the first all-electric airplane to enter an FAA certification program, and the first eFlyers could take to the skies as early as 2021.

Training pilots, draining carbon

Bye initially designed the electric plane after learning of a growing commercial airline pilot shortage. He thought the eFlyer could cut down on expensive fuel costs for flight school training. But in addition to breaking down barriers to entry for new pilots, electric planes could one day make the aviation industry much friendlier to the environment.

Electric airplanes ‘not only possible, but it’s revolutionary.’ – Bye Aerospace creator

Personal cars drive the conversation about transportation’s impact on climate change, but some estimate that an airplane flight could be 50 times worse for the climate than a car driven the same distance. Airplanes, like cars, release carbon dioxide, but each flight also releases nitrogen oxides, water vapor and particulates that can contribute to global warming. When released at high altitude these other emissions usually amount to more than half of a plane trip’s contribution to climate change.

Despite the environmental impacts of aviation, the industry has been largely left out of the conversation about electric vehicles, primarily because of technological limitations. The FAA would not even consider electric airplanes for airworthiness until 2017. The eFlyer, though only a small plane for flight training, could start to change that conversation.

“We are showing that this is not only possible, but it’s revolutionary,” said Bye.

Big savings for flight schools

For flight schools the cost savings are big. Using Colorado prices, it takes about $3 worth of electricity for the eFlyer to make a flight that would require $50 worth of fuel. For commercial airline pilot training, that adds up to more than $70,000 in savings. If the plane is charged with renewable energy, it also cuts greenhouse gas emissions to zero.

While Bye Aerospace is on schedule to be the first plane with FAA approval, other companies are also starting to make electric airplanes. Two battery-powered nine-seater concept planes – one all-electric and another hybrid – made appearances at this year’s Paris Airshow. The commercial aviation industry has started to grapple with its large contributions to climate change by forming CORSIA, a carbon offsetting scheme that promises only carbon-neutral growth in the industry after 2020.

Still, both the technology and the aviation market are a long way from scaling-up to large electric jets. The four-seat eFlyer has a maximum fly time of only four hours, and batteries and electric engines get more expensive and heavier as they are scaled up. Though demand for green tech in aviation is expected to rise, according to Swiss investment bank UBS, mainstream airlines have resisted reforms, like taxation, that could fund a faster transition. Aviation has also been slow to adopt alternative fuels like hydrogen, pointing to high costs and a lack of regulation.

Norway moving ahead on electric airplanes

As other companies start to catch on to the potential of electric planes, Bye Aerospace already has 604 entities that have expressed interest in the eFlyer either with a deposit, a purchase commitment, or an option. The Norway-based flight school OFM has a purchase deposit on 60 planes and intends to charge the planes on the country’s electricity grid that is powered almost entirely with renewables. In Norway, sales of new battery-powered electric are approaching 50%, and electrics already are about 10% of the total private car fleet on the roads. The country appears eager to also expand its use of  electric airplanes.*

While most of the eFlyer’s customers have been flight schools, Bye says the four-seat model of the eFlyer could be used for other things. The quiet plane would be ideal for flying low over dense urban areas without disrupting residents, he says. The lack of noise, combined with low cost and a low environmental footprint, mean that the eFlyer could one day be used for on-demand charter flights or courier services.

“We are innovating with a purpose,” Bye said. “We are very happy to have an environmentally and technically interesting aircraft that also has a compelling benefit to the cost of flight.”

Editor’s note: These two sentences were edited January 24, 2020, to correct an error.

Lindsay Fendt is an environmental reporter and photographer based in Denver.