Harbour Air and MagniX Claim First for Electric Aircraft

Beaver completes first flight
Modified Beaver completes first flight on electric propulsion in Vancouver.
Credit: Harbour Air

A 63-year-old aircraft, a 37-year old airline and a 10-year-old startup came together on Dec. 10 in Vancouver to close the decade with an aviation milestone—the first flight of an all-electric commercial aircraft.

The modified de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, powered by a 560-kW (750-hp) MagniX electric motor, made a 4-min. flight from Harbour Air’s seaplane terminal on the Fraser River adjacent to Vancouver International Airport.

The Beaver is not the first electric-powered aircraft by far, but those flown previously have been either all-electric light aircraft or general aviation types modified to hybrid-electric propulsion. The Beaver is part of the fleet at Harbour Air, the largest seaplane airline in North America.

  • Motor has power density exceeding 5.5 kW/kg
  • Batteries in prototype tightly limit flight time

“Today, we made history,” said Greg McDougall, CEO and founder of Harbour Air, an 8,000-hr. Beaver pilot who flew the battery-powered aircraft on its short first flight. The modified aircraft was noticeably quieter than the piston-engined original. 

The 1956-built Beaver’s Pratt & Whitney radial engine was replaced with MagniX’s magni500 motor under Harbour Air’s ePlane project to electrify its commercial seaplane fleet beginning in 2022—which includes de Havilland Canada DHC-3T Turbo Otters, DHC-6 Twin Otters and the Beavers.

Distinguished by its reshaped nose housing the direct-drive motor and a new Hartzell four-blade propeller, the prototype has its cabin filled with lithium-ion batteries. Taking the aircraft to its maximum gross weight, the batteries provide enough energy for a 15-min. flight with a 25-min. reserve.

The 297-lb. motor was derated to 450 hp to match the Beaver’s original engine, but Harbour Air’s longer-term focus is on repowering its workhorse, the larger Otter, which has a Pratt & Whitney PT6A turboprop and will use the full 750-hp output of the MagniX motor.

The batteries—used by NASA in space applications and therefore considered proven for flight—have a low energy density and are not the ones that Harbour Air and MagniX plan to use in operation, McDougall says in an interview with Canada’s Skies magazine.

First flight of the modified Beaver puts the companies on the path to certification of the electric power train with Transport Canada. The propulsion system is completely transferable to the larger Otter, where the batteries will be installed in the belly area, McDougall tells Skies.

The electric-powered Otter is expected to have at least 30 min. of flight time—enough for most of Harbour Air’s island and coastal routes—plus a 30-min. reserve. A 30-min. flight is expected to require 30-min. of battery recharging, which fits within the airline’s turnaround times.

Harbour Air announced the ePlane project in March. Flying more than 500,000 passengers a year on 30,000 flights in the environmentally conscious Pacific Northwest, the company bills itself as North America’s first carbon-neutral airline. Since 2007, Harbour Air has offset 100% of carbon emissions from all aviation fuel used through an agreement with local company Offsetters Climate Solutions.

Founded in Australia in 2009 to develop advanced electric motors, MagniX relocated its headquarters in 2018 to Redmond, Washington, to focus on aircraft propulsion. The company’s first motor is the 260-kW magni250, which is an option to power Israeli startup Eviation’s Alice, an all-electric, 11-seat regional aircraft with three electric-driven propellers.

MagniX and Eviation are both controlled by billionaire Richard Chandler’s Singapore-based investment company Clermont Group. The prototype Alice is expected to fly in 2020 at Moses Lake, Washington, where aerospace engineering company AeroTEC operates a flight-test center.

MagniX is also teamed with AeroTEC to modify a Cessna 208B Caravan to electric propulsion, with the magni500 motor replacing a PT6A turboprop. The electric Caravan is planned to fly early in 2020.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.