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World’s First Commercial-Grade Hydrogen Plane Embarks on Its Maiden Flight

October 30, 2020 by Luke James

At the end of September 2020, in what was called a landmark moment, aviation firm ZeroAvia completed the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell-powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft. The flight took place at ZeroAvia’s R&D facility in Cranfield, UK.

The six-seater aircraft, part of the Piper M-class series of planes, took to the skies over Britain in a major step towards zero-emissions flights. The small aircraft is powered entirely by hydrogen fuel cells, which produce no emissions and is already available commercially. This means we may soon be seeing real passengers travelling aboard the aircraft.

As ZeroAvia CEO Val Miftakhov explains: “While some experimental aircraft have flown using hydrogen fuel cells as a power source, the size of this commercially available aircraft shows that paying passengers could be boarding a truly zero-emission flight very soon”.

A Leap Forward for Zero-emission Hydrogen

The maiden flight took place at ZeroAvia’s research and development facility in Cranfield, with the modified six-seater aircraft completing taxi, take-off, a full circuit, and landing, all without a hitch. In a statement made shortly after the flight, ZeroAvia said that it marked a major step forward towards the use of zero-emission hydrogen as the primary energy source for commercial flights.


ZeroAvia’s hydrogen-powered Piper aircraft, taking off from Cranfield airport in the UK on the 24th of September, 2020. Image Credit: ZeroAvia via PR Newswire.

Conducted as part of the UK government’s ‘HyFlyer’ project, the flight took place over the course of eight minutes, reaching an altitude of 1,000 feet and a speed of 100 KTAS (knots true airspeed). HyFlyer is a collaboration between ZeroAvia, the European Marine Energy Centre, and Intelligent Energy. It has the goal of developing low-carbon powertrain technologies that could replace conventional aircraft engines.

The flight was not the first time that the six-seat Piper M-class aircraft had taken to the skies. In both the UK and the U.S., it has been flown with some elements of ZeroAvia’s powertrain; however, these flights were powered by electric batteries and not hydrogen. These flights were conducted to evaluate the different elements of the powertrain, which led to some of these being overhauled ready for the next stages of flight testing.

Further Potential Hydrogen-powered Flights

ZeroAvia says that, by the end of 2020, it intends to conduct another flight of 250 miles with the full propulsion system. This flight will take off from the island of Orkney, where there is a hydrogen production plant, to the UK mainland. The distance this involves is roughly similar to that of major, busy routes (such as San Francisco to Los Angeles or London to Edinburgh). Initially, the company planned to do this by the end of 2020’s summer, but, at the time of writing (Q4, 2020), it is yet to happen.

ZeroAvia also believes that it is on its way to seeing hydrogen-powered aircraft that may one day be able to match the flight distances and payloads of current aircraft powered by fossil fuels. By the end of 2023, ZeroAvia says that it will have secured a certificate to retrofit an as-of-yet-unknown 10 to 20-seat aircraft with its hydrogen propulsion system, capable of achieving a range of around 400 miles.

Then, by 2030, the company says that its technology could be powering 50 to 100-seat aircraft in commercial service; and that by 2040, a hydrogen-powered aircraft could be ferrying up to 200 passengers on flights of up to 3,000 miles.

Under a flight test plan that has been approved by the UK Civil Aviation Authority, ZeroAvia will make further modifications to the Piper aircraft to increase its hydrogen storage capacity—increasing its power rating for propulsion from 230 to 260 kilowatts.

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