Back in 1997, Steve Jobs challenged the world to “Think Different,” as he and his team of engineers invented a line of desktop computers that turned the industry on its head. Jobs was not only an engineer, he was a visionary, able to marry his intense quest for innovation with forward-thinking creativity. Great engineers can do that.
While Jobs led teams that invented products the public didn’t even know they wanted or needed, aerospace engineer George Bye and his team at Bye Aerospace are developing a product everyone in the aviation industry knows is coming: aircraft powered solely by electricity. Without making a direct comparison between Jobs and Bye, the parallels between these two visionaries are noticeable. Both knew their ideas would change their industries if they came to fruition and became widely accepted, and both knew those ideas would generate challenges deemed by many to be impossible to overcome.
And, like the early critics of the first iPhone—who said upon its release in 2007 that such a device would fail to alter the mobile industry and business users would never take it seriously—the concept of certified electric airplanes has, at times, received similarly harsh criticism.
“Those of us [who] are equal parts pioneer and entrepreneur face unbelievable challenges bringing something new and transformative to market because what we are doing is an unknown, it’s never been done before,” Bye says. “And as to the critics, there have been critics for all major inventions; it’s just human nature. The telephone, the automobile, the computer, even early airplanes were all target of skeptics. These commentaries serve as fuel to push myself to work harder, achieve more, and do things some in the aviation community think are not possible.”
As a former United States Air Force pilot, and before that as a participant in school sports, Bye learned early in life he has the ability to push himself towards accomplishing lofty goals. “I think tenacity, persistence and grit are absolute essential elements to achieving success as an entrepreneur, and those qualities are part of who I am,” he says. “I give credit to my dad, who instilled courage and discipline in me. When I played sports growing up and had a bad game, it was often my dad who encouraged me to get back in the game. It was facing those challenges and others growing up that established ‘no quit’ in me. That’s how I defined myself then, and it’s still part of my character today.”
And according to Bye, it will take a sky full of that “never quit” attitude to see the Bye Aerospace eFlyer 2 trainer through to certification. “We’re in the critical phase for the conformed aircraft design, and we’re going through certification with the FAA right now,” Bye explains. “Bye Aerospace will be the first in the world to design and develop a FAR Part 23-certified electric airplane, and when it comes to electric airplanes, there is no road map. [It’s not like you can] pull out the Encyclopedia of Building Electric Airplanes for the answers.”
As a veteran engineer, Bye can make your head spin when he explains the eFlyer’s specifications, performance, efficiency, and the process in which electricity is converted into altitude and airspeed. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of certifying the world’s first electric airplane, he is quick to tell you there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
“All of the processes, all of the science, all of the technology—from the motor mounts to the batteries, the computers, the high- and low-power systems, how it all goes together—is being carefully scrutinized,” Bye says. “The synergy of all the systems and how they’re displayed, how they’re monitored, along with the safety and redundancy required, it’s all brand-new. We’re working in collaboration with [the] FAA as a great team to achieve a common goal of certifying the world’s first electric airplane.”
As a “clean sheet” airplane design, Bye explains the eFlyer 2 has been developed from the start to specifically serve the flight-training market. Early prototypes of electric airplanes had limited endurance, but with recent advances in battery technology, Bye’s eFlyer 2 has a target certified reach of 238 nautical miles or three hours of range, plus VFR reserves. “When you look at the typical flight-training mission being 1 to 1.3 hours long, and required cross-country flights being 50 and 100 nautical miles long, our eFlyer 2 fits perfectly into that mission. And it costs just $3 to $4 per flight hour for the electric ‘fuel’ to operate,” he says. This low per-hour operating cost may explain why Bye Aerospace is being flooded with orders from flight schools around the world, including receiving 150 new orders since displaying the eFlyer 2 at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July.
Bye emphasizes the relatively short amount of time it takes to recharge the eFlyer 2 between flight-training sessions: “It only takes 20 minutes to recharge after a one-hour flight. So in the time the CFI debriefs the last student and briefs the next one, the eFlyer 2 can be fully charged and ready to go.”
When George Bye and Bye Aerospace succeed in bringing to general aviation what Jobs brought to desktop computing and mobile devices, expect to see a lot of electric aircraft at your local airfield in the coming years, plugged into outlets recharging for the next flight. It’s a safe bet that many of these plugged-in aircraft will be eFlyers in either two-seat trainer or four-seat cross-country variants. These are the flagship models from a company leading the pack with the kind of once-in-a-lifetime innovation that could eventually transform GA flying as we know it today.
What the future of electric aircraft holds looking out 10 years or more is still an unknown, but Bye and the team at Bye Aerospace feel confident their airplanes will make up a significant part of the GA fleet. “In the five-year timeframe, we expect to be selling several hundred flight trainers per year, and in the 10-year time frame, we expect to be selling several hundred eFlyer 4s per year,” he says.
For anyone watching the development of this completely new airplane type, it is no longer a question of if we’ll see large-scale deployment of certified electric aircraft—it’s a matter of when. The transition will not happen overnight, and at least for the foreseeable future, there will still be plenty of avgas-burning aircraft in service.
However, there is one fact about our legacy GA fleet that cannot be disputed: Many of the aircraft found currently parked at the fuel island in front of the local FBO are an endangered species, with time being their worst enemy. According to Bye, the current fleet of GA aircraft averages about 50 years old, with the vast majority of these produced between 1960 and 1983. There will come a day when those aging airframes will have exceeded their useful lifespans, with increased maintenance demands and higher per-hour operating costs responsible for a natural migration to electric power.
When that happens, George Bye will be happy he never quit because, like Jobs, thinking differently than the rest of the industry is how visionaries become disrupters.
This story originally published in the December 2019 issue of Flying Magazine