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Hybrid-electric aircraft set for test flights between Caithness and Orkney this summer

By Alan Hendry

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Ampaire's hybrid-electric Electric EEL with its tartan wingtips.
Ampaire's hybrid-electric Electric EEL with its tartan wingtips.

An American aviation company is to operate a series of low-carbon flights between Caithness and Orkney as part of a study into connecting "hard-to-reach communities".

California-based Ampaire will fly a hybrid-electric aircraft on the 35-mile route between Wick and Kirkwall. Seven round trips are planned using the Electric EEL, starting in mid-July, as part of a project called Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE).

The £3.7 million initiative, announced earlier this year by Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), seeks to develop a sustainable aviation programme that could transform short flight travel between communities that are considered to be remote.

Ampaire's communications director Jeff Miller said: "We’ll fly the aircraft on regular round-trip flights between Wick and Kirkwall. This route currently has no regular air service."

Travelling between Caithness and Orkney can take up to an hour and a half by ferry, but Mr Miller said Ampaire could cover the route in about 20 minutes.

"We’ll study with HIAL the feasibility of flying this and similar routes to hard-to-reach communities, especially those that lack sufficient air service because of the high cost of flights with today’s aircraft.

"Hybrid-electric power is a means to reduce airline cost of operation, as well as reduce noise and carbon emissions. We’ll be analysing all of these benefits and other factors as well.

"We’ll study infrastructure, especially charging requirements, with HIAL, identifying how we can use renewable sources to charge the aircraft."

The Electric EEL is a modification of the Cessna 337 twin-engine aircraft.

"It is a hybrid-electric test-bed aircraft, demonstrating new technology that can be put into service quickly by first upgrading existing aircraft, then by developing all new aircraft, both hybrid-electric and, eventually, fully electric," Mr Miller explained. "It has a conventional Avgas engine in the rear, an electric power unit in the nose, and a battery pack in an aerodynamic fairing under the cabin.

"We’ll bring our second Electric EEL aircraft to Scotland, complete with tartan wingtips. This aircraft was the first to fly in the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] Experimental-Market Survey category along an actual airline route – across the island of Maui in Hawaii in 2020.

"It also made a long-distance flight from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay area, a distance of 341 miles."

"We have been flying our first and second hybrid-electric aircraft since 2019. Ampaire is now evaluating larger regional aircraft upgrades."

Following the flights in Caithness and Orkney, the aircraft will go to south-west England for a series of round trips between Exeter in Devon and Newquay in Cornwall.

The SATE project – part-funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund – will create the UK’s first operationally based, low-carbon aviation test centre at Kirkwall.

It is part of UKRI’s Future Flight Challenge which supports the development of greener ways to fly. Led by HIAL, the project brings together a consortium of aviation industry specialists, Caithness and Orkney businesses, public-sector bodies and academia.

The partnership includes the European Marine Energy Centre, Denchi Group, Cloudnet, Air Service Training, the University of the Highlands and Islands, the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Orkney Islands Council.

When the project was announced in January, HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “Project SATE will place the Highlands and Islands at the vanguard of the adoption of next-generation aircraft and spearhead the aviation industry’s response to climate change.

“The project will identify the necessary supply chain and people skills to support the development and testing of the new technologies, with the aim of developing a Highlands and Islands sustainable aviation sector, stimulating inward investment and local supply chain opportunities.

“It will also measure local community appetite for the new aircraft technology, especially on lifeline regional routes, and the potential impact on the regional economy from the adoption of these new technologies.”

Caithness was left without scheduled flights after the loss of the Wick/Edinburgh and Wick/Aberdeen routes last year.

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