Joseph Oldham, a pilot and director of the San Joaquin Clean Transportation Center for CAL START, shows the front battery and charging port on one of four electric-powered planes purchased by the cities of Mendota and Reedley that will be used to offer reduced-cost training for people wanting to become pilots. Photo by David Castellon

published on May 4, 2018 - 1:14 PM
Written by David Castellon

After a lengthy journey mostly by ship that took them from Italy to the Central Valley, four planes purchased by the cities of Reedley and Mendota sit in a hangar at Fresno Chandler Executive Airport.

The single-engine, two-seat planes are unique not only because of the fact that the two rural cities own them, but also because the four are among only six commercially-produced, electric-powered planes anywhere in the U.S., and the pilots operating them here are the first to fly non-experimental, electric planes in U.S. airspace.

As for what will be done with the four Pipistrel Alpha Electro aircraft, that will depend on the Federal Aviation Administration.

Reedley and Mendota bought the four aircraft and four charging units for about $150,000 a set, using portions of a $1.3 million grant to create a program to teach people to fly at rates generally cheaper than in training programs that use planes running on costly aviation fuel, said Joseph Oldham, a pilot and director of the San Joaquin Clean Transportation Center for CAL START, a non profit clean transportation advocacy group and consulting firm.

He presented officials in Mendota and Mendota with the idea of developing the flight training program and now oversees the nonprofit formed to oversee and maintain the planes, The Sustainable Aviation Project.

“We’re flying the planes now,” testing how far the planes can go once they’re charged, and members of the group — largely comprised of pilots — are developing the curriculum to train people to earn sport pilots certificates using the electric aircraft, a first in the U.S., Oldham said.

The idea is the lower cost per flight will reduce the cost of the training so people who normally couldn’t’ afford it could become pilots, some of whom might use their certifications as springboards to get more training and accumulate the necessary flight hours to become commercial pilots.

Mendota and Reedley officials plan to earmark $100,000 of the grant money — Fresno County transportation dollars collected from the Measure C half-cent sales tax that county voters first passed in 1986 — to set up scholarships for some would-be pilots, though the amount of individual scholarships and the parameters for awarding them haven’t been determined.
Plans are to have the electric planes do short flights and landings between Chandler airport in Fresno, Mendota’s William Robert Johnston Municipal Airport and Reedley Municipal Airport.

Though electric cars currently can travel a few hundred miles on single charge, the Pipistrels can fly only about 45 minutes to an hour before needing to be recharged. None of the three airports is more than a 25-minute flight from one another, and each will have a charger, allowing one plane to be charged while the pilot and instructor get into a fully-charged plane to fly back where they started, or students and instructors may sit and discuss the flight while the planes they flew in on get charged.

But even if the curriculum for the pilot training were done, the planes couldn’t be used for instruction now, and that may not happen for months.

While the electric Pipistrels are free to fly in Italy, where they were manufactured, and in other parts of Europe, that’s not the case in the U.S., thanks to an FAA rule stating a light sports plane must have a reciprocating engine, which applies to gas-powered plane engines but not electric engines..

Though the rule was worded a time long before electric aircraft were on the horizon and FAA officials haven’t challenged changing it, enacting such a change can occur at a glacial pace at government agencies.

Reedley and Mendota officials knew that when they bought the planes last year, and they — along with Oldham — have been working for months to get a waiver on the designation rule.

For now, the FAA has granted airworthiness certificates for the four planes by designating them experimental aircraft, because they’re being tested and evaluated and used to develop a training-flight program. But the federal agency will have to change the rules on electric planes or grant Mendota and Reedley waivers before they can be used to train pilots.

How long that may take Oldham wouldn’t speculate, though Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba said that based on what she has been told, the cities may be just about 10 months away from starting their flight training.

FAA officials didn’t respond by press time to a request for an update on the matter.

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