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Electric airplanes developed by a Colorado startup take aim at global pilot shortage

Gas isn’t cheap, neither is learning how to fly. Going electric could cut aviation fuel costs by 90 percent, save students money and, as an added bonus, cut emissions

The Sun Flyer 2 prototype from Bye Aerospace, a company building an all-electric airplane at its Centennial Airport headquarters. (Provided by Bye Aerospace)
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A pivotal moment in George Bye’s entrepreneurial life came in 2006. As the creator of a hot new aircraft called the Javelin, Bye was getting wined and dined by Silicon Valley’s elite, who wanted one of the planes Popular Science described as “a flying sports car.”

That’s how Bye, a former Air Force pilot, ended up riding in the passenger seat of a Tesla Roadster prototype. It was before Elon Musk took over the electric car company. It’s when Bye had his “aha!” moment.

“I got a very short ride in the Roadster in the backstreets behind their warehouse, and that car accelerated faster than my jet in full afterburner. Using electrons at a few pennies compared to gasoline,” recalled Bye, whose Javelin had aimed to reach near supersonic speeds. He called the moment “a revelation not for Tesla, but for George Bye. This became part of my DNA. We can do this. We can make the world a better place.”

He started Bye Aerospace, now based at Centennial Airport, the following year. And since then, the company has made its first test flight of an all-electric Sun Flyer aircraft, added Subaru-SBI Investment and other investors, and collected 226 orders so far for planes that are expected to hit the market in late 2020.

The Javelin? RIP. After a promising start and $160 million valuation, the company failed to get enough funding and filed for bankruptcy in 2008, blaming the recession and the long wait for Federal Aviation Administration approvals.

George Bye keeps memories of aviation items present and past at his office in the Bye Aerospace headquarters in Centennial Airport. A framed photo of the the Javelin, the light weight jet he developed in the early 2000s, hangs in the corner. On the table, he’s touching a model of a Cessna 172, the top selling aircraft of all time. But he has his eyes on what he hopes will replace the Cessna, the all-electric Sun Flyer. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

There was more to changing the world of aviation than a fast, lightweight plane. Innovation had to be part of the business model too, Bye realized.

“I like innovation and avionics and structures and safety systems. That’s all very cool,” said Bye, who keeps a framed photo of the Javelin on the wall behind his desk. “…This still doesn’t solve the problem.”

Already in 2007, Bye noticed a trend that continues today. Pilots were dwindling in numbers and airlines were consolidating. The high cost of becoming a pilot was disheartening to potential recruits, as were low starting wages. To change the industry’s trajectory, Bye tackled the business problem: Make flying more affordable. By putting electric motors in planes to save on fuel costs, student pilots could better afford flight training that can cost about the same as a law school degree.

“This,” said Bye, pointing to the engine area of a Sun Flyer model he keeps in his office, “solves a problem. The electric motor and batteries. And that creates a market for this [the Sun Flyer] so that this production rate can return to where this [the Cessna 172, the top-selling airplane in aviation history] was when this was a new idea back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

The pilot shortage, explained

Cargo and passenger travel by air is on the rise. Some 8.2 billion people will fly somewhere in 2037, filling seats on more than double the number of flights made last year, the International Air Transport Association predicts. Likewise, demand for pilots will double worldwide to 790,000 over the next 20 years, according to a forecast by The Boeing Co., which is trying to sell the world more of its airplanes.

In the meantime, the number of pilots in the U.S. peaked in 1980 and has been shrinking ever since for a variety of reasons. A more recent reason: Airline pilots must retire at age 65, and the Regional Airline Association estimates that nearly half the pilots working in the U.S. today are 50 or older.

The shortage has been less of an issue for major airlines like Frontier Airlines. That’s partly due to a year-old partnership the company has to hire from regional flyer Trans States Airlines and, more recently, better pilot wages, which increased an average of 53 percent this month.  

“Since our new pilot contract was announced, our application rate has essentially tripled,” Jonathan Freed, a Frontier spokesman, said in an email. “So, we have an abundance of resumes coming in. We plan to hire more than 250 pilots this year, and our current application rates more than support it.”

But for the most part, the larger players hire from the smaller regional airlines, who face turnover and are left scrambling to find more pilots, said Louis Smith, president of Future & Active Pilot Advisors, which tracks airline hiring and wages.

“Over the next 10 years, we expect the 11 major airlines will retire 35,000 pilots and hire another 15,000,” Smith said. “And the way they get those pilots is they poach everyone below them. … For major airlines, (the pilot shortage) has not been an issue because they’re the king of the hill right now. They can fill their classes. When the airlines start paying you to learn to fly, that’s a shortage.”

Few airlines are paying students outright to learn how to fly. JetBlue offers students a chance to join its pilot corps by enrolling in its Gateway Select program — at a cost of $110,000. Similarly, American Airlines has its Cadet Academy, which costs between $72,000 to $89,000. United Airlines, which has a flight-training center in Denver for all existing pilots, partnered with Metropolitan State University on a program to fast track students to becoming pilots, though there’s no guarantee United will hire them.

Attracting new recruits has been a challenge for the industry for years. Flight-training school can run $60,000, or upwards of $250,000 if you opt for a four-year degree. Starting salaries at regional airlines had been astonishingly low — in the midteens — until recently.  

“The pilot pay is terrible. They might offer $40,000 in the first year and a $20,000 bonus, so it’s $60,000. You’re still not where you could be if you spent the time going into pre-med or law,” said Mike Boyd, who runs the airline consultancy Boyd Group International in Evergreen. “Plus, you can’t live at home. You have to live in some exotic city, like Newark.”

A newer requirement as of 2013 also added to the expense of becoming an airline pilot. They now need 1,500 flight hours, with some exceptions, before getting certified to fly for companies like United Airlines, FedEx or a smaller regional carrier. (Many pilots stick to a commercial license, which allows them to get paid to fly private tours or banners over a city and requires 250 flight hours.) And a large chunk of the cost is fuel.

Aspen Flying Club charges pilots in training $145 per “wet” hour, which means fuel is included. At about $5 per gallon, on a plane burning eight to 10 gallons an hour, “you’re talking $40 to $50 an hour of the cost of the aircraft is just in fuel,” said Danny Smith, who co-owns the flying club that started in 1977.

Cheaper fuel but other costs involved

This is where Bye Aerospace says it can help.

Its Sun Flyer can fly roughly for three and a half hours at a cruising speed of around 135 knots (155 mph) with its all-electric motor from Siemens. Power from 10 battery packs takes between 20 minutes to 8 hours to recharge, depending on the charger. It holds two or four passengers, depending on the model, making it ideal for schools where a training flight may last about an hour or so.

According to Bye’s calculations, the energy needed to power the electric plane is less than a tenth of the cost of aviation fuel.

“We’re not polluting, we’re replacing a 50-year-old obsolete airplane with a brand new high-tech airplane,” Bye said. “And we’re spending $3 a flight hour instead of $45.”

Based on those assumptions, 1,500 flight hours training in a Sun Flyer ends up costing about $4,500 for electricity, versus $67,500 in aviation fuel in a conventional plane.

Even so, Bye knows he has a long way to go to convince an industry that is used to internal combustion engines and petroleum-based fuel.

Over at Centennial Airport, which relies on the sale of aviation fuel for 40 percent of its revenues, the facility would need to install chargers for the planes. Robert Olislagers, the airport’s executive director, said that could cost $50,000 to $75,000 each.

“Who’s going to pay for that? I’ve got to amortize that,” Olislagers said.

More: More than 70 people have died in Colorado aircraft crashes since 2014. Here’s what the data tells us.

Smith, with the Aspen Flying School, said there are other costs to owning an airplane, such as overhauling the engine every 2,000 hours (Bye puts the Sun Flyer’s at 10,000 hours but likely longer). The school tends to buy used planes, which can sell for far less than $100,000, and refurbish them with new avionics and interiors. The two-seat Sun Flyer 2 costs $349,000, the four-seater is $449,000.

“But,” Smith added, “we can’t keep paying a lot for old airplanes. At a certain point, a 1978 Cessna 172 doesn’t work. Our customers want new avionics. They want newer aircraft.”

The school ordered 30 of Bye’s electric planes last August.

“With Bye’s electric aircraft, you’ll eliminate most of that (fuel cost),” Smith said. “We hope to benefit from lower operating costs, which allows us to reduce the price of flight training in general and make it more affordable for people looking at this as a career.”

Will it fly?

As the Sun Flyer took its first test flight at Centennial Airport on April 10, 2018, the weather was perfect. The company had calculated the best viewing spot on the ground to see the plane overhead, and a crowd of employees and aviation officials gathered to watch the plane fly.

“It was like looking at the dawn of a new age of aviation to see an electric airplane fly trouble free,” recalled Charlie Johnson, Bye’s chief operating officer and a retired president of Cessna Aircraft Co. “There were two phases of emotion. The satisfaction in seeing the fruits of our labor in seeing the airplane fly and seeing the tremendous opportunity of the future.”

The all-electric Sun Flyer from Bye Aerospace takes its first test flight on April 10, 2018 at Centennial Airport. (Provided by Bye Aerospace)

The flight was short — “a runway hop,” Johnson said — and lifted up to about 150 feet in the air. It was really a test of the Siemens motor and making sure the basics of an electric plane in flight worked. An upgraded Siemens motor that will end up in all the future Sun Flyers will be installed in the aircraft in February, and longer flight tests will begin, he said.

There are a number of other aviation companies working on electric or hybrid-electric airplanes. The Zunum Aero, backed by Boeing and JetBlue, is working on a 12-seat hybrid-electric commercial aircraft. Airbus is working with Siemens and Rolls-Royce on the E-Fan X, another hybrid-electric.

“Electric power for aircraft is definitely a game changer for general aviation,” said Jay Lindell, who works with aerospace companies for the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade.

Electric airplanes are very possible, though technology limits the early models to small planes, said Boyd, who tracks the market potential for new aviation, including the supersonic aircraft in development by Boom Technology, also at Centennial Airport.

“This isn’t Buck Rogers stuff. What Mr. Bye is doing is really grounded technology. In Europe, ATR is building 70-seat turboprops. Boeing, Airbus, everybody is (working on electric) and not because they’re trying to save the planet,” Boyd said. “I’ve said this before, and it drives people crazy: The reason a four-passenger airplane wants to go electric is because it’s far more cost efficient than what we have today. It’s not because we want to save the planet and do away with the carbon footprint.”

Bye, who also is developing a solar-powered aircraft and is on the board of Silent Falcon, an unmanned aircraft company, wants the Sun Flyer to be the first FAA-approved, all-electric airplane serving the flight-training market. He’s hoping to get it approved and start production by late 2020.

“The electric motor is about the size of a stack of pancakes and that’s crazy,” Bye said. “All of the thrust, all of the performance comes from an efficient electric motor that weighs all of 57 pounds.”


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