Pioneering hydrogen plane completes maiden flight

3 Mar 2023

The 40-passenger regional aircraft had a Universal Hydrogen fuel cell powertrain. Image: Francis Zera

The Connect Airlines CEO described the successful flight as the ‘true start’ to decarbonising the aviation industry.

A plane running on hydrogen fuel propulsion completed its first flight, marking a milestone on the journey to clean aviation.

The 40-passenger regional aircraft was made by Universal Hydrogen, a US start-up developing renewable means of air transport.

Depending on the production method, hydrogen has the potential to be a clean form of fuel in the future, which could help the aviation industry reduce its emissions.

The Universal Hydrogen aircraft, nicknamed Lightning McClean, had one of its turbine engines replaced with the company’s fuel cell powered system, while the other remained as a conventional engine for safety.

The aircraft flew for 15 minutes and was piloted by the company’s chief test pilot Alex Kroll, a former US Air Force test pilot.

Kroll said the team was “comfortable” with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain during the second circuit, so they throttled back the conventional engine “to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power”.

“The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine,” Kroll said.

The flight’s success marks a big win for the company, which was granted a certificate last month by the US Federal Aviation Administration to take its hydrogen plane to the skies.

Universal Hydrogen said it has a rapidly growing order book, with 247 aircraft conversions planned for 16 customers worldwide. The company said this adds up to more than $1bn in conversions and more than $2bn billion in fuel services over the first ten years of operation.

The flight was witnessed by representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the US and European launch customers for the hydrogen airplanes.

Connect has placed a first-position US order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains, along with purchase rights for 25 additional aircraft conversions.

“Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonisation of the global airline industry and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first US operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen,” said Connect CEO John Thomas.

In January, founder and director of the ZE-Aviation Alliance, Siobhan Dolan Clancy, spoke to about the benefits of sustainable aviation fuel in reducing emissions, along with the challenges that come with producing these green fuels.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic