Written by Lee Ann Eager
Over a year ago, the Sustainable Aviation Project brought four electric propulsion aircraft — the first of their kind in the United States — to the communities of Reedley and Mendota. In a special presentation for the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) board of directors and staff, the founders of the project demonstrated the zero-emission aircraft’s capabilities and painted a picture of the Valley-wide impact that this program could hold.
“We are now sitting in a hanger with the world’s largest concentration of electric propulsion aircraft,” explained Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba during her presentation. The four aircraft are among only six commercially-produced, electric-powered planes anywhere in the United States. The local pilots operating them are the first to fly experimental electric planes in U.S. airspace, and have garnered attention from leaders throughout the aviation industry, and even NASA.
When she became city manager, Zieba said Reedley was facing a 33% unemployment rate and searching for innovative ideas to re-invigorate the economy. Joseph Oldham, director of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Transportation Center, approached her about the possibilities of this burgeoning technology, and soon after, connected with city leaders in Mendota.
Together the city governments and airline professionals formed a plan to meet several goals at the same time. First, the purchase of these planes and development of a pilot training program represented a step in the right direction toward lower emissions and low-cost training for student pilots, helping to stave off the growing shortage of pilots in the airline industry.
Second, it utilizes the Valley’s unique network of municipal airports, safe path of travel, open airspace and infrastructure to support production, assembly and testing of electric aircraft and related components for the aviation industry.
The Sustainable Aviation Project is an almost entirely Valley-grown organization and has its base of operation in Reedley and Mendota, with additional support from Fresno Chandler Executive Airport. The program is a unique combination of technological innovation, visionary leadership and strategic use of Measure-C funds. Measure C is a half-cent sales tax first passed in 1986 and continues to grow with time. By tapping into the new technology portion of Measure-C funds, they were able to apply for and obtain a $1.3 million grant to cover the costs of the four planes, administrative staff and program scholarships for qualified students. As an essential connection throughout Fresno County, the EDC wanted to provide its board of directors the opportunity to learn about these efforts to establish a network of support for this project where innovation in electric aviation, workforce preparedness, infrastructure capacity and economic development all meet.
With their grant application, the Sustainable Aviation Project’s organization made the case for embracing electric aviation technology which will reduce carbon emissions, incorporate solar technology, and support economic development in rural Fresno County. The single-engine two-seat electric planes were built in Slovenia, shipped to Italy and then made their way to the Central Valley. The first flights of the aircraft in the Valley took place in April 2018.
Though most people are unaware of it, there is a growing pilot shortage problem across the United States. One of the biggest reasons for this growing gap has to do with the high cost of pilot training programs. The costs can total more than six figures for a basic program, even with support from community colleges. As a result, access to a pilot’s license and the potential six figure career of being an airline pilot can be out of reach. For communities like Reedley, Mendota and other small Central Valley towns, this means that many young people reach a glass ceiling of skills development and income potential. With the EDC’s commitment to inclusive economic development, identifying an industry need for jobs and potential wage mobility for rural residents was a key factor in highlighting this project.
Another benefit of the Pipistrel aircraft is that there is a lower cost per flight for training. This reduces the training fees, which will allow people who couldn’t normally afford to become pilots to use their certifications as a springboard to get the flight hours necessary to become a commercial pilot.
The aircraft are currently housed in a hangar at Fresno Chandler Executive Airport, with ownership of the planes residing with the cities of Mendota and Reedley. Each plane’s call sign ends with an “M” or “R” designating the city ownership.
The location of Chandler Executive Airport, Mendota’s William Robert Johnston Municipal Airport and Reedley Municipal Airport are uniquely situated to support the electric planes short flights and landings. The Pipistrel aircraft can fly about 45 minutes to an hour before needing to be recharged, which makes the three airports the perfect training ground. Oldham expects that the aviation industry will make major breakthroughs in electric propulsion systems to allow for longer flights.
The Central Valley is an ideal location for a project of this type. While urban areas in other parts of the state suffer from crowded air space, the area between the Fresno, Mendota and Reedley airports offers a safe path of travel. In addition, there is plenty of open space to develop a fully-realized electric aviation technology sector with adjacent real estate for production facilities next to each airport.
However, the training process that they will use with the Pipistrel planes still requires FAA approval. While the aircraft are free to fly in many parts of Europe, the United States regulations are a little different. As Oldham explained, “It has to do with the word ‘reciprocating.’” The current FAA rules state that light sports planes must have a reciprocating engine, a type of engine that isn’t necessary for electrically powered aircraft.
Though the rule was worded before electric aircraft were a reality, the process to get the change in place is taking a snail’s pace. Fortunately, with consistent pressure from the Sustainable Aviation Project, as well as interest from other important aviation decision makers, the decision may not be far off. For now, the FAA has deemed the aircraft as airworthy under the experimental designation, particularly because they are being used to create a flight-training program. However, the federal agency will need to change the wording of their rule before Mendota and Reedley can have the go ahead to train pilots officially.
The two cities have been in close contact with Reedley College, which runs a nationally known training program for aircraft mechanics. The school has also launched its first ever flight science associate’s degree — the only such degree program in the Central Valley. The program allows graduates to receive a commercial pilot’s certificate, along with a certificate to train pilots. It is a 24 month program that provides coursework and field instruction. Currently, the program is using standard fuel propulsion planes for flight training.
In the meantime, the Sustainable Aviation Project is relying on the general airworthiness certificates for the electric propulsion aircraft, establishing the bridge that will help take Valley students into six-figure pilot careers. They were the first of 150 applications for electric propulsion aircraft with the FAA, and with the three local airports out of the regular flight pattern, they can run training sessions throughout the day. The project organizers are currently fielding inquiries from renowned research and testing institutions, and have asked to be part of a panel to develop 6-8 seater commuter electric aircraft by 2025.
Lee Ann Eager is president/CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corp.