Universal Hydrogen Completes First Test Flight of Fuel Cell-Powered Airliner

Company’s Dash 8 twin turboprop flew with one fuel cell engine and one standard turbine powerplant.

Universal Hydrogen’s Dash 8 test aircraft takes off on a flight with one of its engines powered by hydrogen fuel cells. [Courtesy: Universal Hydrogen]

Universal Hydrogen said it successfully completed the first flight of its hydrogen fuel cell-powered Dash 8 aircraft at Moses Lake, Washington. The company said the flight is the first in a planned two-year testing program that it expects to culminate in the entry of fuel-cell aircraft into airline fleets.

The Dash 8, a 40-passenger regional airliner, nicknamed ‘‘Lightning McClean,’’ took off from Grant County International Airport (KMWH) and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 feet MSL, the company said. The flight, which was conducted under a special airworthiness certificate from the FAA, marks the first time such a large aircraft has flown under fuel-cell power, Universal Hydrogen said.

For the test flight, the airplane flew with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric powertrain mounted in a nacelle on one wing with the airplane’s usual turbine engine on the other wing, mainly for safety, Universal said.

“During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” said Alex Kroll, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot and now the company’s chief test pilot. “The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel-cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine,” he said.

Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, which are the U.S. and European launch customers for the hydrogen-powered aircraft, witnessed the test flight, Universal said, adding that it expects to have ATR 72 regional airliners converted to run on hydrogen and entering passenger service in 2025. The company also said it has taken orders totaling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide, totaling more than $1 billion in backlog and more than $2 billion in fuel services during the first ten years of operation.

“Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonization 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 John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines. Connect placed an order with Universal to convert 75 ATR 72-600s to hydrogen powertrains with purchase rights for 25 additional conversions.

“With this technology, and the improvement of government positive regulations I am confident that we can turn the tide of public sentiment and once again make aviation a shining beacon of technological optimism,” added Alain Regourd, president of Amelia.

Reducing Broad-Scale Emissions

The company, backed by GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, Toyota Ventures, JetBlue Ventures, and American Airlines said it plans to move from regional aircraft to larger models.

“More than half of aviation CO2 emissions today come from the A320 and 737 [families] of aircraft,” said Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen. “Both Airbus and Boeing will need to replace these venerable airplanes with a new design starting development in the late-2020s and entering passenger service in the mid-2030s. Making their successors hydrogen airplanes is a golden opportunity—perhaps the only opportunity—for aviation to get anywhere near meeting Paris Agreement emissions targets without having to curb aviation traffic volumes.”

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanWelsh4

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