It’s not easy being green — particularly if you’re learning to fly.
Air travel has been slow to adopt clean energy, but while the next generation of aviators waits for commercial airlines to move away from fossil fuels, it doesn’t mean they can’t train with lower carbon emissions.
Manufactured in Slovenia by Pipistrel, the Velis Electro is a two-seater light aircraft designed for flight schools. The single-engine aircraft can fly up to 12,000 feet and has a maximum speed of 98 knots (113 mph). It has a flight time of around 50 minutes (plus reserve) per charge, with two batteries that take up to two hours to completely recharge.
Tine Tomažič, chief technology officer at Pipistrel Slovenia, says that while the Velis Electro offers a range of advantages over regular aircraft, a key attraction is that many of the fundamentals remain the same.
“You can literally take this airplane home and use it from day one for whatever you were using other non-electric powered airplanes for before,” he tells CNN Business.
As well as producing no carbon emissions in the air, the airplane is quiet — around 60 decibels says Pipistrel, which is about the same as a normal conversation. Tomažič says that as a result, it can fly at much smaller airfields — which are often nearer to built-up areas and closer to prospective pilots — without annoying nearby residents.
Buying into a greener future
Since it was launched in 2020, Pipistrel says it has sold around 100 of the electric planes, priced at €175,000 ($175,500).
With surging gasoline prices and increased scrutiny of the carbon footprint of air travel there is growing interest in the segment. The Green Flight Academy in northern Sweden has three Velis Electros as part of its private and commercial pilot license training programs, which use sustainably powered planes where possible.
Around 30% of the flying hours required for a commercial pilot’s license take place in the electric aircraft, Johan Norberg, head of flight training at the academy, tells CNN.
There is “a huge difference” in operational energy cost, he says, estimating a 40-minute flight in the Velis Electro uses $2 to $3 of renewable electricity, compared to roughly $45 of aviation gasoline for the same flight in a traditional single-engine training aircraft, like a Cessna 172, using a Lycoming O-360 engine.
Pipistrel says batteries need to be replaced after around 2,000 flight hours (an indicator on the batteries says exactly when) and the price for a new pair is approximately $20,000.
Even with the cost of replacing batteries, Norberg estimates the electric aircraft is cheaper to run than the academy’s diesel counterpart, although he adds that “the long-term operational costs are still to be verified.”
A potential $40 billion industry
Training for a private pilot’s license costs €14,500 ($14,500) at Green Flight Academy, about the same as at flight schools that use conventional aircraft. “When we can do a larger portion of training in electric airplanes there will be a significant cost cut to the whole training program,” explains Norberg.
In addition to shorter flights, qualifying for a private license requires pilots to undertake two-hour flights, says Norberg, which aren’t currently possibly in the Velis Electro. But developing the next generation of electric aircraft with longer flight times could mean that within a few years, pilots might be able to train entirely without burning fossil fuel.
Pipistrel was acquired this year by American conglomerate Textron (owner of the Cessna and Lycoming brands), and is now part of Textron eAviation. The global electric aircraft market is expected to quadruple by 2030, according to market research firm Precedence Research – which estimates the value could reach nearly $40 billion by the end of the decade.
The Velis Electro is currently awaiting approval for commercial use in the US by the Federal Aviation Administration, but it is already being flown privately.
While trainee pilots are now getting the opportunity to fly green, large aircraft have yet to be weaned off fossil fuels, and zero-carbon long-haul and cargo flight is a way off. But Tomažič is hopeful that won’t always be the case.
“What (the) Velis Electro is already doing today is training the generation of pilots who will fly these large green aviation products of the future,” he says.
“Not only is it representing a change in technology applied to training, but it is definitely changing the mindset of future pilots who inevitably will want to fly cleaner, electrified airplanes as part of their pilot careers.”