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Zunum Aero ZA10
Zunum Aero’s hybrid-electric design features batteries in the wings, and a gas turbine coupled with an electrical generator in the back. Quiet electric propulsors power the plane. (Zunum Aero Illustration)

Zunum Aero has selected France’s Safran Helicopter Engines to provide a new-generation engine turbine for its hybrid-to-electric airplane, due for first flight in the early 2020s.

Safran’s Ardiden 3Z engine will drive the electrical generator for Zunum’s 12-seat ZA10 aircraft, supplementing the energy stored in the plane’s batteries with peak power of 500 kilowatts during key stages of flight and over long ranges, Zunum said today in a news releaseThe aircraft will be able to cruise and land on turbo-generator power alone, offering full redundancy. 

The ZA10 is being designed for a range of 700 miles, with an eye toward enabling affordable operations at tens of thousands of underused regional-size airports around the world.

Zunum, which is headquartered in Bothell, Wash., says the aircraft should drive operating costs down to 8 cents per available seat mile, or $250 per hour. That’s said to be 60 to 80 percent lower than comparable conventional aircraft of comparable size.

If the business model works out the way Zunum says it will, it could open up new types of low-fare air routes — for example, a connection between the Seattle’s Boeing Field and British Columbia’s Whistler ski area for $79. In May, Zunum said its first planes would go to JetSuite, a California-based private aviation company that’s a partner of JetBlue Airways.

“Today marks a significant milestone on the path to delivery of the ZA10,” said Matt Knapp, co-founder and chief technology officer of Zunum Aero. “The Zunum ZA10 aircraft will bring breakthrough performance to regional aviation, paving the way to fast, electrified, affordable high-speed air services to communities everywhere.”

Florent Chauvancy, Safran Helicopter Engines’ executive vice president for OEM sales, said the Ardiden 3Z engine “represents a very powerful complement to the ZA10 because of its exceptional performance, along with low operating and maintenance costs.” Zunum and Safran are counting on advanced materials and integrated life-cycle management to reduce the engine’s operating costs by extending the life of critical components.

The two companies have an important ally in common: Boeing is one of Zunum Aero’s financial backers, and it’s also one of Safran’s power-system partners. Zunum has also received investment capital from JetBlue Technology Ventures and an $800,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Clean Energy Fund.

Zunum has employees in the Seattle area as well as in the Chicago area and Indianapolis. Its development timeline calls for ground and flight testing to start in 2019, with a modified Rockwell Turbo Commander 840 turboprop plane serving as its flying test bed.

The current schedule calls for the certification process to begin in the 2020-2022 time frame, but that timetable is heavily dependent on advances in battery technology. The Seattle Times quoted Knapp as saying the schedule for starting commercial passenger service has slipped from 2022 to mid-2023.

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