A white plane with upturned wings looped over the Connecticut River before it touched down with a whisper at the Lebanon Municipal Airport on Friday. But its quiet landing belied the noise it’s making for a Vermont company looking to disrupt an arm of transportation that’s so far eluded environmentally friendly alternatives.
The plane that landed in West Lebanon, the battery-powered ALIA-250c, had just flown 133 miles from Burlington, the home of Beta Technologies, an aerospace company at the vanguard of electric plane tech.
The ALIA had just made its first flight to an airport outside Beta’s testing facilities, then stopped for its layover in Lebanon before moving on to Manchester and then back home to Burlington on Monday. A helicopter and a chase plane flew close behind to monitor its systems.
The ALIA-250c is a compact cargo plane with a 50-foot wingspan designed to fly up to about 170 mph. On Friday, it reached a maximum speed of about 140 mph, according to FlightAware.
The ALIA’s defining feature isn’t its speed, though; it’s its emissions and efficiency.
The ALIA’s designers modeled it on the Arctic tern, a slender bird that migrates from pole to pole and flies as far as 6,000 miles without touching down for food or rest. The nearly 7,000-pound plane can fly 250 nautical miles before recharging in about 50 minutes. It requires no jet fuel and emits no carbon emissions.
Beta promises to make a dent in one of the most stubborn sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have solutions in cars, and trucking and marine. We don’t have any solutions in aviation,” Beta founder Kyle Clark said during a presentation last year.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that aircraft are responsible for 12% of U.S. transportation emissions and 3% of the country’s total emissions.
And a plane is far more difficult to electrify than a car, in part because batteries and energy storage require heavy machinery. An electric car is significantly heavier than its gas equivalent, but that is not an impassable dilemma for a land vehicle. Aircraft, though, need far more energy to sustain more weight. Aircraft also travel greater distances than cars, and so their batteries have to last longer.
Beta isn’t just looking to save fuel; it’s looking to save space.
The ALIA’s developers plan for it to take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, and use the air as its runway. With this design, it will require far less space than a traditional airplane, enabling it to touch down in industrial facilities, cities and hospitals. One of its prototypes, which has flown at Beta testing facilities in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Burlington, has this capability.
On Friday, though, Beta flew the “serial No. 1,” which does not. The No. 1 has completed nearly 200 test flights, with the longest clocking in at 205 miles.
Beta promises that its “elegant redundancy” ensures safety and ease — all of the company’s employees are offered flight lessons.
Beta, founded in 2017, has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Amazon, the United States Air Force and private capital. UPS has also committed to buying Beta’s planes and plans for its first delivery of 10 planes in 2024. The small planes, which go for about $4 million apiece, would touch down and recharge at UPS shipping facilities and help it fill speedy deliveries and serve smaller communities. Beta’s first customer was United Therapeutics, a company developing artificial organs that has funded several electric plane startups that it hopes will one day deliver its organs.
Beta is already building out a national electric charging network. Nearly 60 charging sites are online or in progress, forming a web down the Atlantic coast and across the Southeast, with another chain proceeding across upstate New York, Ohio, Indiana and Arkansas.
Roger Sharkey, who owns West Lebanon-based Sharkey’s Helicopters, was quick to agree when Beta asked to use his equipment and personnel during its test flight. His company sells helicopter parts to Beta.
“It’s different,” Sharkey said. Its silence, and its sleek, composite design struck him.
If asked to help out with a test flight again, “I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.