WEST LEBANON — A white plane with upturned wings flew over the Connecticut River before landing with a murmur at Lebanon Municipal Airport on Friday. But its silent landing belies the noise it makes for a Vermont company seeking to disrupt a transportation arm that has so far eluded eco-friendly alternatives.
The plane that landed in western Lebanon, the battery-powered ALIA-250c, had just flown 213 km from Burlington, the headquarters of Beta Technologies, an aerospace company at the forefront of electric planes.
The ALIA had just made its first flight to an airport outside Beta’s test facilities, then stopped for its layover in Lebanon before heading to Manchester and then returning 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 aircraft with a 50 foot wingspan designed to fly up to approximately 170 mph. On Friday, it reached a top speed of around 140 mph, according to FlightAware.
The defining feature of the ALIA isn’t its speed, however; it’s its emissions and its efficiency.
ALIA’s designers modeled it on the Arctic tern, a slender bird that migrates from pole to pole and flies up to 6,000 miles without landing to feed or rest. The nearly 7,000-pound plane can fly 250 nautical miles before recharging in about 50 minutes. It does not require jet fuel and emits zero carbon emissions.
Beta promises to dent one of the most stubborn sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have solutions in cars, trucking and marine. We have no solution in aviation,” Beta founder Kyle Clark said during a presentation last year.
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that airplanes are responsible for 12% of US transportation emissions and 3% of the country’s total emissions.
And a plane is much harder to electrify than a car, in part because batteries and energy storage require heavy machinery. An electric car is significantly heavier than its petrol equivalent, but this is not an insurmountable dilemma for a land vehicle. Airplanes, however, need a lot more energy to support more weight. Airplanes also travel greater distances than cars, so their batteries need to last longer.
The beta isn’t just about saving fuel; it seeks to save space.
The ALIA developers envision it will take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, and use the air as a runway. With this design, it will require much less space than a traditional aircraft, allowing it to land in industrial facilities, cities and hospitals. One of its prototypes, which flew at beta testing facilities in Plattsburgh, NY, and Burlington, has this capability.
On Friday, however, Beta piloted “serial number 1”, which is not the case. The No. 1 made almost 200 test flights, the longest being 205 miles.
Beta promises that its “elegant redundancy” ensures safety and ease – all employees of the company are offered flight lessons.
Beta, founded in 2017, has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Amazon, the US Air Force and private capital. UPS has also committed to purchasing Beta’s planes and expects its first delivery of 10 planes in 2024. The small planes, which cost about $4 million each, would land and recharge at UPS shipping facilities and would help him fulfill quick deliveries and serve smaller communities. Beta’s first client was United Therapeutics, a company developing artificial organs that has funded several electric airplane startups that it hopes will one day deliver its organs.
Beta is already building a national electric charging network. Nearly 60 charging sites are online or in progress, forming a network along the Atlantic coast and across the Southeast, with another chain in upstate New York, Ohio, from Indiana and Arkansas.
Roger Sharkey, owner of West Lebanon-based Sharkey’s Helicopters, was quick to agree when Beta asked to use his equipment and personnel on his test flight. His company sells helicopter parts to Beta.
“It’s different,” Sharkey said. Its silence and its sleek and composite design struck him.
If asked again to help with a test flight, “I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he said.
Claire Potter is a member of the Report for America body. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.