The all-electric airplane at the NBAA Convention’s Static Display at Orlando Executive Airport was the Pipistrel Velis Electro, a two-seat, single-propeller, conventionally configured light aircraft manufactured in Slovenia by Pipistrel. The Electro’s difference from the company’s Virus SW121 is that it is completely powered by two liquid-cooled Li-ion batteries and equipped with an on-board charger. It is the world’s first type-certified electric aircraft, by EASA and the UK Civil Aviation Authority (UKCAA), as well as Canadian, Mexican and Brazilian aviation regulatory authorities.
CAT’s Chuck Weirauch interviewed Tony LaCorte, Director of External Affairs for Textron eAviation, to hear more.
Electric for Flight Training
According to Textron’s LaCorte, the Velis Electro is designed to be a training aircraft to expose student pilots to takeoff, landing and circuit work under VFR flight rules. Students would then transition to a more conventionally powered training aircraft to complete qualification requirements for their pilot’s license, such as for cross-country training flights. The Velis Electro can sustain 50 minutes of flight time and be recharged in an hour, LaCorte added.
Because of its lower initial and operating costs, the Velis Electro is a perfect fit for initial flight training, La Porte pointed out. Several flight schools are already employing the aircraft in Europe, and The University of Waterloo has been using the nearly identical Pipistrel Alpha Electro variant for that purpose since 2021.
“From a business standpoint, there is no fuel cost, and there are lower maintenance costs because you have less moving parts in an electric motor,” La Corte summarized. “Quite honestly, if you are trying to break into this market – opening up a flight school – why not do it with an electric aircraft?”
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Textron, Inc. completed its acquisition of Pipistrel in April 2022. Textron had previously announced the startup of its eAviation division in April 2021. According to Textron, this business segment was created to develop and offer a family of sustainable aircraft for urban air mobility, general and cargo applications. Their Nexus eVTOL advanced air mobility (AAM) air taxi is under development at eAviation’s Wichita, Kansas headquarters.
Textron’s Nexus AAM
Experience with the Velis Electro and Pipistrel will help Textron eAviation with the design and development of AAM aircraft such as the Nexus, as will Textron’s line of Cessna and Beechcraft aircraft, along with McCauley and Lycoming products, LaCorte said.
“One of the things that we take into consideration is our pedigree with Cessna, Beechcraft and the others,” he pointed out. “In fact, those entities are all coming together as a team to help develop the Nexus eVTOL. And we look at it from our brands with an expectation of reliability and safety, and the expectation that customers know the rest of our product line. So we are really focused on that.”
Textron eAviation President and CEO Rob Scholl explained that his division has taken over the work on the Nexus from Bell (now Textron Bell), which the Fort Worth, Texas company began in 2017. The initial Nexus designs featured tilting ducted fans for lift, while the current design has a fully electric, distributed-propulsion system, with four tilting rotors and two stationary vertical lifters.
“As you know, through the engineering process, designs change over time, to improve aero efficiency and performance,” LaCorte noted. “What you see here today is the transformation of the Bell Nexus, which was the ducted rotor, to the fixed-wing, multi-rotor, tilt-rotor configuration that we designed for redundancy and fail safety. We call it a ‘multi-motor, multi-rotor,’ so that each rotor has multiple motors for additional redundancy and safety to the platform.”
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According to Scholl, the latest Nexus design will be piloted and will carry up to four passengers. The maximum takeoff weight is expected to be 8,000 pounds, with the eVTOL to cruise at 120 knots and have a target range of 100 nautical miles. Scholl described the latest Nexus to be about the size of a Cessna Caravan.
Both La Corte and Scholl were careful to state that while work on the Nexus is continuing at Wichita, eAviation is “in no hurry” to produce the final product. La Corte projected that currently the target date for a demonstrator or test vehicle would be in “the next couple of years.”
“Our pace will be driven by the speed of development of technology, regulations and infrastructure,” Scholl said. “It will be mindful of the efficient investment demanded by our shareholders. We feel that our work today puts Textron eAviation in a strong position to participate in the AAM market.”