Universal Hydrogen Dash 8 Completes First Flight

Universal Hydrogen
Credit: UH

MOSES LAKE, Washington—Universal Hydrogen’s De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 flying testbed has become the largest hydrogen-electric aircraft to fly following a successful first flight from here on March 2.

Configured with a megawatt-scale hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system, the converted aircraft lifted off at 8:41 a.m. Pacific time and returned after a 15-min. flight. Commenting on the milestone achievement, Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, says “we really witnessed something historic here. I think we saw a few firsts–this is for sure the largest hydrogen fuel cell-powered airplane ever to take to the skies.”

Although a modified Tupolev Tu-155 remains the largest hydrogen-fueled aircraft to fly, Eremenko says “we can also reasonably lay claim to the fact that we are the largest to cruise–principally because on the second pass over the airport the Pratt & Whitney Canada engine was throttled back.”

The aircraft’s hydrogen-electric 1-megawatt powertrain replaces the regional turboprop’s right-hand PW127 engine and is installed in a modified nacelle with large air inlets on either side to cool the fuel cells. These are supplied by Plug Power, while Magnix provides the 560-640 kW magni650 electric propulsion unit. 

The Magnix motor directly drives a 91-in. Hartzell propeller. It is smaller than the standard Dash 8 propeller, which required careful handling by the test crew. Production conversion kits for retrofits to the ATR 72-600 regional airliner will include a pair of more powerful 2-megawatt electric motors and be capable of carrying 41 to 60 passengers on routes up to 1,000 km. Work on the ATR conversion is underway in Toulouse.

Toulouse is also the focus for UH2’s hydrogen logistics concept, which it is developing in addition to the powertrain retrofit. The system depends on using modular capsules and the existing freight network to deliver hydrogen to airports and into aircraft. First operational tests of the modular hydrogen delivery system were conducted in December at its engineering center in Toulouse using the ATR 72 test aircraft. Tests showed how standard air freight containers can be used to transport the capsules from the hydrogen production site to the airport, then return them after use for refilling. 

The flight was piloted by Alex Kroll, an former U.S. Air Force test pilot and the company’s chief test pilot, along with Michael Bockler, an experienced Dash 8-300 pilot. Bockler says “she flew just like a normal Dash 8, and the only thing we noticed was a little bit of yaw because of the differential in thrust.”

The crew focused on monitoring temperature and the voltage output of the electric motor. “The voltage was staying steady the whole time and we pulled the P&W engine back to 900 rpm to make it nice and quiet and showcase the electric engine,” Bockler says. Although exact data is still being analyzed, the test crew believes as little as 10 kg of hydrogen was used over the 15-min. flight.

Takeoff was conducted starting with full power on the magni650 and only 40% power on the PW127. “Then every 10 knots above 40 we added 10% –so 90 knots–90%, and at 100 knots we were at 100% power on the Pratt,” he adds. After takeoff power was reduced on the PW127 and the desired power set on the electric engine. Power on the magni650 is commanded via torque. “That’s what commands back to the compressor and controls,” he adds.

The flight, which was conducted from Moses Lake-based AeroTEC’s flight test center, was the first in a two-year flight test campaign expected to culminate in 2025 with entry into service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen. 

Representatives from launch customer Connect Airlines and Amelia were at Moses Lake to witness the flight. Universal’s order book now totals 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers. The company says this includes more than $1 billion in conversions backlog and more than $2 billion in fuel services over the first 10 years of operation.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.