The cities of Reedley and Mendota recently have purchased WATTsUP” electric trainer planes from manufacturer Pipistrel in Slovenia. They are among the first electric planes commercially purchased that will fly in in U.S. airspace.

published on July 28, 2017 - 11:37 AM
Written by David Castellon

When you think of the cities of Reedley and Mendota, it’s unlikely you would associate them with being pioneers in aviation.

But that may change in a few months, as the two cities are among first U.S. customers to order the first all-electric pilot-training aircraft commercially available in the world.

And once the four single-engine planes are delivered here from the Central European country of Slovenia, where they’re being built, the cities plan to use them as part of a program operating out of their municipal airports and Fresno’s Chandler Field to provide low-cost training for people to earn their pilots’ licenses, said Joseph Oldham a pilot who presented the idea to both cities and is helping plan out the program.

Funded by Measure C

Those plans are being paid for with a $1 million grant administered by the Fresno Council of Governments.

That funding actually wasn’t part of the proposal that Oldham submitted to Mendota and Reedley about two years ago for the “Sustainable Aviation Project,” said Nicole Zieba, Reedley’s city manager.

“The idea was that Reedley and Mendota would be the first places in the entire United States flying electric aircraft as pilot-training aircraft,” she said.

“The reason it’s important in Reedley is because Reedley College has a nationally-known aviation mechanics program,” so being one of the first places in the U.S. where people are maintaining and training to work on the electric planes hands-on would give students a competitive edge as they become a growing part of the aircraft market, as is happening with electric cars, Zieba said.

In addition, she said, “Nationwide, we know organizations are desperate for pilots” and providing initial flight training at a lower cost should allow South Valley residents who aspire to fly but are too poor to afford the training to get a foot in door.

“We got all together and discussed the feasibility of the project and discussed how we were going to fund it, and coincidently the Fresno COG put out a call for projects on their new technology grant fund,” Zieba said.

That grant is being paid for with Fresno County transportation dollars from the Measure C half-cent sales tax that county voters passed in 1986.

“They were looking to fund transportation using new and emerging technology,” and electric planes, which are vastly less polluting than gas-powered planes, certainly fit the bill, said Zieba, adding that the grant required that public agencies had to be the lead applicants, which is why Reedley and Mendota are about to become aircraft owners.

Rural airports as a home base

The two cities were awarded a $1 million grant, and most of that money will go to buy the four planes at a cost of about $140,000 each, which includes a charging station for each.

Some of the money will also go to buying and erecting prefabricated two-plane hangars at Reedley Municipal Airport and William Robert Johnston Municipal Airport in Mendota, along with hooking and installing the charges and connecting them to the airports’ electrical systems.

And $90,000 will be set aside to fund scholarships to pay for flying lessons for disadvantaged youths, said Oldham, director of the San Joaquin Clean Transportation Center for CAL START, a non profit clean transportation advocacy group and consulting firm.

He noted that Fresno officials were part of the discussion and offered to make Chandler Field part of the training runways for the new program, but that the city didn’t need to be involved in applying for the grant.

Pipistrel, a Slovenian company, is building the planes — named the “WATTsUP” electric trainer — as it currently is the only plane manufacturer in the world mass producing electric training planes.

Getting the first two

Only a handful of those planes are being flown in Europe and other parts of the world, and Oldham said that initially it was believed that Mendota and Reedley would get the first in the U.S., but it turns out their order came in just behind an order from Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, which operates a flight school out of Compton/Woodley Airport in Southern California.

“We won’t be the first,” Oldham said, “But between us, we’ll get the first two of these [planes] in the United States.”

As for how the planes will be used here, a local, private flight school has agreed to lease the electric planes from Reedley and Mendota.

Whether students will sign up for flight classes directly through that school or if registration would be run by Reedley College hasn’t been determined, nor has the cost of the classes.

Expectations are that the classes should be cheaper because normally the major cost of flight school is the cost of using a plane — generally $100 to $110 an hour — and aviation fuel usually comprises about 40 percent of that cost, Oldham said.

In comparison, the electric planes are expected to cost $1.40 to $2 an hour for the electricity they need.

A new training model

Of course the two-seat, single-engine electric trainers will not have the range of their gas-powered counterparts, as a full charge will keep it in the air just about 90 minutes.

Not that the planes will have to fly that far. Plans are for them to fly between the three Fresno County airports, and be hooked up to chargers after each landing.

Charging will take about 40 minutes or less, during which the instructor pilots and students may take one of the charged planes back up in the air or discuss how the flights went and the next flight plans while the planes they arrived in charge, Oldham said.

And as battery technology improves, the engines are designed so they can outfitted in the future with next-generation batteries that might offer longer flight time, he said.

But all of these plans depend on being able to fly the planes in U.S. airspace, and currently light sport electric aircraft — which include the Pipistrel trainers — aren’t allowed to fly here because of wording in Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Just a ‘pipe dream?’

In fact, only experimental, amateur-built planes and those involved in experimental research and development are allowed to fly in the U.S., said Brian Carpenter, co-owner of Rainbow Aviation in Corning, which is developing an electric-motor glider.

“Here’s the problem — the whole concept of what these guys are doing is a pipe dream,” he said of the plans of Mendota and Reedley officials.

The problem stems from the FAA’s definition of a light sports plane — that it must have a reciprocating engine, which wouldn’t apply to an electric engine.

Carpenter said that rule was worded at a time when electric motors on planes didn’t seem feasible, and “Everybody is in agreement that the rules have to change.”

But changing a government rule rarely is a quick process and could take years, he said.

But that may not be a problem, said Zieba, as the cities and Oldham have been working with the FAA for the past six month to get an exemption to allow the flight training to go forward here after the planes arrive in October or November.

“We had early assurances we could get an exemption to operate them, and we’re working to change rules so more of these planes can operate,” Oldham added.

Related story: Are passenger flights in electric planes the future?

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