It may be decades before airlines are powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels — batteries are still too heavy and drain too soon. But George Bye thinks he’s found a market that electric aircraft can thrive in today: flight training, where lessons generally include little more than an hour in the sky. On the arid plains outside Denver, his Bye Aerospace is flight-testing an airplane built specifically for that purpose, the two-seat eFlyer 2.
The battery-electric plane should operate at a fifth the cost of conventional training aircraft, Bye says, with the electricity for an hour’s flight clocking in at roughly $3 in his home state of Colorado, compared to a $50 fuel bill for the Cessna 172 Skyhawk. That, the former U.S. Air Force pilot says, will make flight training more affordable for less well-to-do students—just in time for an upswell in pilots that need training over the next 20 years.
“All of us who were military pilots or commercial pilots trained in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, we’re all retiring,” he says. “Where are the airline pilots going to come from to replace us?”
The answer to that is being worked out now by airlines, aircraft makers and flight schools ranging from university programs to large companies like CAE to mom-and-pop airport operations.
With a mandatory retirement age of 65, 49% of U.S. airline pilots will age out of the cockpit in the next 15 years, according to FAA data. Meanwhile, a rise in travel worldwide—particularly in China and other fast-growing Asian countries—is leading to rapid expansion by airlines. Put the two trends together and Boeing projects that air carriers will need to hire 804,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.
Smaller airlines are already finding recruiting hard, leading to sizable increases in pilot pay. And that’s helped to boost enrollment at flight schools, as well as aircraft trainer sales.
“If you’re running a flight school today and you can’t make money, you’d best get out,” says Bob Rockmaker, head of the Flight School Association of North America.
This year Piper Aircraft, one of the two biggest makers of trainers, is on pace to build 230 of its mainstay model, the Archer, up from 47 in 2016. Bye, who’s raised $11.65 million from investors including the Subaru-SBI Innovation Fund, according to Pitchbook, says he has over 1,000 orders and commitments, with about two-thirds for the eFlyer 2 and the rest for an upcoming four-seat version.
Cessna, owned by $10.6 billion market cap Textron, expects to raise production for its Cessna 172 Skyhawk trainer over the next two years because of strong demand, including big orders this year from U.S. flight school chain ATP and aviation-focused university Embry-Riddle.
“For almost a generation there’s been low interest in the career,” says Christopher Crow, vice president of piston aircraft sales at Cessna parent Textron. “We’re happy to see where the market’s going.”
U.S. airlines went through lean years after 9/11 and the Great Recession, slowing hiring dramatically. Now with boomer pilots on the way out, the majors are scrambling to keep their cockpits manned, establishing pathways for student pilots to advance to the bigtime from university and private flight schools through their regional airline partners.
The big U.S. airlines aren’t having problems filling pilots’ seats yet, but smaller passenger carriers and cargo carriers are, and it’s beginning to disrupt their operations. Via Airlines, which flew 50-passenger jets between cities in the Southeast, filed for bankruptcy earlier this month, citing an inability to hire enough pilots. FedEx last year offered pilots approaching retirement age bonuses of $40,000 to $110,000 to keep them behind the controls.
Regional airlines have been forced to boost their notoriously poor compensation. Starting compensation has risen to more than $60,000, including bonuses, from base pay as low as $20,000 four years ago. “It’s getting closer to family-sustaining employment,” says Rockmaker.
That’s luring more students to flight schools, which are in turn investing more in new aircraft.
Piper’s backlog has swelled to its highest level in 20 years, helped by its largest-ever order — for up to 240 aircraft, placed in April by the Florida-based conglomerate L3Harris, which operates a chain of training academies — alongside purchases by smaller schools..
“We’re seeing a new burgeoning group come to the table,” says Drew McEwen, head of international and direct sales at Piper. “Community colleges we’ve never heard of are buying new product.”
Bye first took to the skies as a boy in Corvallis, Ore. His parents, both recreational pilots, owned a Piper Cherokee during the golden age of general aviation in the 1960s, before a spike in fuel prices and interest rates and a spate of product liability lawsuits dramatically raised the cost of flying and cratered small plane sales.
He thinks electric propulsion could bend the cost curve back down. With a lower energy bill as well as the reduced maintenance required by electric motors, Bye says the eFlyer 2 will cost $23 per flight hour to operate, compared to $110 per hour for a Cessna 172.
“It’s not incrementally better, it’s disruptively better,” Bye says.
It’s an opportunity that Bye first cottoned onto a decade ago after the failure of his last startup, which built a prototype of a military-style personal jet called the ATG Javelin but was unable to raise the funding to get beyond initial flight testing amid the financial crisis.
He was inspired to build an electric plane by the improvements in electronics and battery technology that enabled the Tesla Roadster and smartphones. “The technology trends were indicating the possibility of revolutionary change,” he says.
He started with a small, unmanned solar electric plane, and progressed to converting a Cessna 172 to electric, followed by a purpose-built single-seat electric.The eFlyer 2 could be the first passenger aircraft designed from scratch around an electric propulsion system to be certified as airworthy.
Skeptics say the slowness of recharging (20 minutes for a one-hour flight) compared to topping off a fuel tank will make the eFlyer impractical for busy flight schools, and while the plane’s operating costs may turn out to be lower, its purchase price, starting at $349,000, isn’t, meaning it won’t be any more affordable to buy for the smaller schools that typically rely on used aircraft. “For a small flight school, if they can’t afford the capital financing, getting as low a purchase price as possible is a key consideration,” says the aviation analyst Ernie Arvai.
Dropping the purchase price is what Piper set out to accomplish with a new trainer it’s bringing to market called the Pilot 100. Based on the Archer, but with more basic cockpit electronics, simplifications to the airframe and a new engine, it will be priced starting from $259,000, $90,000 less than the base model of the Archer. Piper says it has roughly 100 orders for the plane, which it hopes to get certified in 2020.
Could Cessna and Piper go electric? They say for now they’re content to watch and wait for developments in the technology.
“I don’t have a whole lot of customers coming to me and asking for an electric version,” says Textron’s Crow.
Bye, who believes he’s less than two years away from winning certification under the FAA’s new Part 23 standard for the eFlyer 2, is convinced that its performance and operating cost advantages, as well as its lower environmental and noise impacts, will bring him enough orders to attract more investment to cover the hefty costs ahead. “We’re innovating for a purpose,” he says.