A handful of Pipistrel Alpha Electro two-seaters are operating in the United States, but because of the shortsightedness of FAA regulations for light-sport aircraft they can’t be used for paid flight training. Now, the Slovenian maker of the battery-powered airplane thinks the rule will be amended by early next year, a change that would usher in an age of electric-powered ab initio training at U.S. flight schools.
When the FAA wrote the regulations for LSAs more than a decade ago, the words “reciprocating engine” were specifically added to the new class of airplanes to prevent manufacturers from dreaming up turbine-engine conversions. Few within the aviation industry expected electric propulsion to approach being ready to enter the mainstream quite as quickly as it has.
Some flight schools are eager to add lower-cost electric airplanes to their fleets now that suppliers like Siemens are providing the means for manufacturers to do so. The FAA is revisiting LSA rules to allow small electric airplane to be used for flight training at a time of unprecedented demand for commercial pilots.
The Alpha Electro can stay aloft for about an hour on a single charge, perfect, says Pipistrel, for ab initio training through first solo. Price of the airplane is just under $140,000, while the cost to charge the batteries for an hour’s worth of flight time is just $3. Even accounting for the cost of maintenance, depreciation and eventual battery replacement, Pipistrel claims the hourly operating cost of the Alpha Electro is $25, a figure that is far below that of gasoline-powered trainers.
At EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Pipstrel is showing off a new rapid charging station that will replenish the batteries quickly in between lessons. The manufacturer also is showing off a $40,000 virtual reality simulator that offers a compelling training environment for students to take advantage of the cost savings of "flying" while still firmly planted to the ground.
The Alpha Electro trainers flying in the United States now are operating under Experimental certificates. As soon as LSA rules are updated to reflect the current state of electric propulsion technology, the first batch of paying students will begin training in a whole new way.