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Harbour Air test flight
Harbour Air’s all-electric seaplane takes its first test flight. (Harbour Air via Twitter)

The cheers seemed louder than the motor when Harbour Air’s all-electric seaplane made its first flight over the Fraser River today, marking a milestone for zero-emission propulsion.

Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air had the decades-old de Havilland Beaver plane converted to use Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX’s 750-horsepower Magni500 electric motor, and today’s flight from the airline’s terminal south of Vancouver’s airport kicked off what’s expected to be a two-year-long certification process.

Harbour Air and MagniX have been building up to the milestone for months. On Monday, the plane’s floats lifted out of the water briefly for a “skip test,” but today’s straight-line trip up the river and back was considered the first honest-to-goodness flight test. Harbour Air CEO Greg McDougall was at the controls.

The electric motor made a quiet buzz as the plane flew by, but the noise from a helicopter hovering above was much louder.

Go to the 27:30 mark in this video to watch the takeoff:

Four minutes after takeoff, the plane eased back down onto the Fraser River in front of Harbour Air’s dock. Afterward, McDougall said the seaplane handled well, with “amazingly great performance.”

“It was a Beaver on electric steroids,” he joked.

McDougall took special note of today’s milestone for all-electric aerial propulsion. “In 10 years, you’re going to see such a transformation that I hope you look back and remember back to this day,” he told reporters.

MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski went even further, comparing it to the American Revolution’s “shot heard round the world.”

All-electric airplanes have taken to the air before: Past flights range from the globe-girdling odyssey of Solar Impulse 2 in 2015-2016 to demonstrations of VTOL aircraft such as Airbus’ Vahana, Boeing’s passenger air vehicle, Lift Aircraft’s Hexa, China’s Ehang and many others.

But MagniX and Harbour Air are billing their converted Beaver as the “world’s first commercial all-electric airplane,” based on the fact that the companies plan to have the plane certified by the end of 2021.

Representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada Civil Aviation observed the test. It’ll be up to those agencies to certify MagniX’s motor as well as Harbour Air’s conversion of the airplane to all-electric power.

Ganzarski said the first commercial flights will last no more than 30 minutes, due to the limitations of battery capacity. But that should be enough to fly the majority of Harbour Air’s routes — say, from Vancouver to Nanaimo, B.C.

“It’s enough to start the revolution,” Ganzarski said.

Eventually, Ganzarski expects battery technology, based either on lithium-ion cells or a next-generation formulation such as lithium-sulfur, to improve to the point that Harbour Air’s entire fleet could go all-electric.

And Harbour Air is just the start: Magnix and Seattle-based AeroTEC are retrofitting a Cessna Caravan 208B airplane for electric propulsion at Moses Lake’s airport in Central Washington, with the aim of starting flight tests by early 2020. Getting that plane certified should widen the options for future all-electric conversions.

AeroTEC is also working with MagniX and Israel-based Eviation on the development and testing of Eviation’s built-from-scratch Alice electric airplane, which will use three of MagniX’s 375-horsepower Magni250 electric motors as a propulsion option.

An Alice prototype was exhibited this summer at the Paris Air Show. Ganzarski, who is Eviation’s chairman as well as MagniX’s CEO, said the prototype is now being prepared for runway taxi tests in Arizona.

Eventually, that plane and another flight-ready version will take shape in Moses Lake, with the first test flights planned for mid-2020. Eviation is aiming to win FAA certification for Alice by early 2022.

Ganzarski has compared the potential impact of all-electric aviation to Tesla’s impact on the all-electric automotive market. The technology could well reduce airlines’ per-hour operating cost by more than half, and make a significant dent in the airline industry’s increasingly controversial carbon footprint, he said.

This report incorporates information from an earlier report about Harbour Air’s all-electric airplane.

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