Harbour Air

The untold story of how the world’s first commercial electric flight almost didn’t happen

The world’s first flight of a commercial electric aircraft was a technological feat. But for the first time, one of the players involved has revealed details of how it almost didn’t happen.

electric flight almost didn't happen
The world’s first commercial electric flight on short final December 10, 2019 (Brett Ballah).

Harbour Air’s first flight of an electric commercial aircraft was a technological triumph. But details emerging more than a year later show the game-changing electric flight almost didn’t happen, underscoring the challenges of breaking new ground and trying to change the world.

Everything was shaping up perfectly for the morning of December 10, 2019. The forecast called for sun in the morning, a welcome break from the rain and fog that often envelops the Vancouver area and keeps float plans tied to the dock.

Crews spent months preparing for this moment, stripping down a Harbour Air Beaver float plane and installing a magniX electric motor and batteries. The technological barriers just to reach this moment would have been enough to discourage almost anyone.

Putting an electric engine on a commercial aircraft had never been done. The motor had to be powerful enough to propel the aircraft and lift it off the water. Batteries had to be designed and parts sourced that could meet the exacting standards of the aircraft industry. It all had to be light enough to make a flight possible with passengers and cargo on board. And the parts had to be fitted onto a 50-year-old airframe without drastically changing the flight characteristics.

Harbour Air and magniX crews worked hard. The project was finished on time and the plane given a striking blue-green coat to signify its ecological credentials. Pre-flight tests showed the aircraft was in good shape and the crews had done their jobs to the highest standards. So far, so good.

Then there was the paint.

A pre-flight curveball

Most of the work was done in one of the hangars that dot the south side of Vancouver International Airport. But Harbour Air wanted to showcase the innovation in one of the older Second World War-era hangars nearby. The building was specially outfitted for the occasion. Aircraft parts were moved out, the exposed wooden rafters looked their best, and the floor was painted a brilliant white. Painters used an epoxy coating, giving the cement floor a ‘just finished’ look that would showcase the aircraft in the best possible light.

On December 9, some 12 hours before the flight, the Beaver was moved into the historic hangar.

“So the night before we moved from the working hangar into that hangar,” recalled Roei Ganzarski. He’s the President and Chief Executive Officer of magniX, the company that designed the electric motor and batteries. He recounted the story at this year’s virtual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance. “As we were getting ready to leave for the night we plugged [the plane] into the charger, to start charging. And it didn’t charge. It showed a safety error of no grounding.”

This, obviously, was a problem. The world’s media was arriving in the morning, an electric plane without charged batteries would be a real black eye.

“And so we checked the charger, everything was right,” said Ganzarski. “We tried again, it wouldn’t work, we checked the battery pack, everything worked. We checked cell by cell, battery by battery and everything seemed to be fine. But it still wouldn’t charge.”

A low-tech solution

High-tech was letting the team down. So they went decidedly low-tech to find a solution.

“We eventually solved it with a manual trickle charger, a small four kilowatt charger,” said Ganzarski. “We had our employees basically take shifts, all night, literally from 9pm to 7am in the morning, going through and charging module by module in order to charge the battery. And we got the 97% that we wanted.

“At 7am we went to fly and it was a great success story,” he said.

And so it was. The Beaver lifted silently from the Fraser River at Vancouver International Airport and, after a short flight, successfully returned to the dock. MagniX has continued its development work. And Harbour Air chief executive Greg McDougall received the 2020 Award of Honour from the Honourable Company of Air Pilots.

But the goal wasn’t just to fly once. MagniX wants to certify its propulsion system for commercial use. And McDougall wants to convert his entire fleet to electric power.

Regulators – along with airlines and manufacturers – do not like mysteries. So why wouldn’t the batteries charge?

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Tracing the problem

So if everything was working and the batteries still weren’t charging, perhaps the problem was somewhere else? They searched high and low.

“And what we found, initially, is that the cause was the paint,” said Ganzarski. “When the floor was painted it was painted with such a thick layer of this epoxy paint – this beautiful white epoxy paint – so it would look nice. It was so thick that it led the aircraft, and more importantly the charger, to believe, that the aircraft wasn’t grounded.”

It shows how the little things can trip you up. One of those unexpected lessons learned that are common in developing new technology. (Ganzarski also shared a great tidbit about how an ageing aircraft strobe light caused unacceptable electromagnetic interference.)

“It was amazing to learn these types of things that really don’t necessarily think about upfront, until you do the full integration,” said Ganzarski. “So integration is a critical, critical part of this journey of application, and you’ll learn a lot of it. So never underestimate the complexity or the time it will take you to integrate.”

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