Electric aircraft take to the skies at Hartford-Brainard Airport

For the first time in Connecticut’s history, a battery-powered light aircraft took passengers up for five-minute flights at Hartford-Brainard Airport, just three miles from downtown Hartford.

Walking across the tarmac, Lindsey Rutka, the co-proprietor of Hartford Jet Center, beamed at the two electric aircraft in the hanger.

“This is the future of aircraft,” Rutka proclaimed.

The Pipistrel Alpha Electro looks to the untrained eye like any other small aircraft, but when in flight, rather than the roar of a gas-powered engine, only the propellers emit a dull rumble.

Next to it sat the futuristic $150,000 AIR One, which Michael B. Teiger, the executive director of Hartford Brainard Airport Association, Inc., likens to something from the 60s cartoon, The Jetsons. However, it is still in the testing phases and will not be taken to the skies until 2023 at the earliest, AIR’s co-founder and CEO Rani Plaut said.

The main event is the former, the $235,000 Pipistrel Alpha Electro, which includes the $20,000 charging station. The pilot of the Alpha Electro, former U.S. Navy aviation structural mechanic and founder of the flying school, Learn 2 Fly CT, Phil Smith, informed the Courant that it is great for the needs of flight schools like his.

The Hartford Aviation Technologies of CT owned plane is small, only able to carry two passengers with no room for luggage, but that isn’t an issue, according to Smith. Simplicity and affordability is the main attraction for the aircraft, with the Pipistrel advertising that the aircraft is “as simple to charge and use as a cell phone.”

As it bounds along the runway it seems unsurprisingly quiet and once in the air, it has the feeling more of a glider than a plane with self propulsion. Smith added that it actually makes it a little more difficult to land because the pilot has to work harder to make the wheels connect with asphalt.

Although the flight is short during the exhibition, roughly 5-minutes, Smith and his peers want to show what the aircraft can do and its potential.

Smith highlighted that there is issues with regulations set by the FAA. Currently, everything is based on gas powered planes and in order to teach future pilots in the Alpha Electro, they have to be a part-owner for $1,000, Smith said.

Alpha Electro has a short take-off distance of over 1,000 feet per minute climb capability and a flight time of roughly one hour. However, due to the Federal Aviation Administration, Smith said, the aircraft must prepare to land with 30 minutes of flight time left in fuel or this case, battery. The plane takes roughly one hour to charge and the plane’s cruising range is 75 nautical miles, Smith said.

Teiger said that he wouldn’t be replacing his single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft just yet, and emphasized that the Alpha Electro isn’t meant to replace the existing single-engine light aircraft but that technology around battery capacity is only going to improve.

Rutka said he plans to install solar panels to all of the 150,000 square feet of the Hartford Jet Center hanger roof in the next two years, making aircraft power sources completely green, or “green to green,” as he puts it.

Carbon-free air travel is becoming more sought after, with aircraft emitting around 100 times more CO2 per hour than a shared bus or train ride and the emissions of global aviation are approximately 1 billion tons of CO2 per year. Aviation contributes an estimated 2.4% of global annual CO2 emissions, most of it from commercial travel, according to Science Magazine.

Being able to conduct training on smaller airfields closer to towns and cities with zero C02 emissions and minimum noise is ideal for the small airport in Hartford, Rutka said. Just three miles from downtown Hartford, the 201-acre airport has been fighting to stay open.

In 1921, “a 350-acre cow pasture became the chosen site for what has been called the country’s first municipal airport,” named after Hartford Mayor Newton C. Brainard, according to the Connecticut Airport Authority. Then, the “airfield’s status was boosted in 1927 when Charles A. Lindbergh stopped first at Brainard on a national victory tour after his solo transatlantic flight.”

Being able to conduct training on smaller airfields closer to towns and cities with zero C02 emissions and minimum noise is ideal for the small airport in Hartford, advocates say. Just three miles from downtown Hartford, the 201-acre airport has been fighting to stay open.

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin supported closing the 200-acre airport, making it an issue in his first campaign for mayor in 2015. However, a group of pilots, tenants and friends of the airport have pushed back and, in early 2022, established the Hartford Brainard Airport Association.

In March, a $1.5 million new study will examine the cost and potential obstacles to closing the airport in Hartford’s South Meadows of Hartford-Brainard Airport. State Sen. John W. Fonfara, who has long pushed for the airfield’s redevelopment, said the study would hire outside experts to assess the future of the airport.

Teiger, Rutka and Smith all said they are confident that the introduction and maiden flight in Connecticut of its first electronic aircraft would demonstrate how important the airfield is and its potential for the future.

The second aircraft, called AIR One, successfully completed the first hover test of its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) prototype, according to AIR’s co-founder and CEO Rani Plaut, but has yet to gain FAA approval.

The Israeli company was founded in 2018 as Polarity Mobility, by chief technical officer Chen Rosen, and expanded to include Plaut and chief operational officer Netanel Goldberg, according to AIR.

The aircraft is “powered by eight electric motors and uses eight pairs of rotors to fly at a max speed of 155 mph, according to AIR. Its maximum range is 110 miles and is credited, Plaut said, to the lightness of the aircraft: the wings and rotors of the AIR One do not tilt, and the absence of machinery needed to tilt the wings reduces the weight.

“It’s a utilitarian plane,” Plaut said. “We wanted to merge the two, helicopter and airplane.”

His hopes are that first responders will be able to use the speed of a fixed wing and the agility of a helicopter. But it wasn’t designed to be solely used for emergency response; it’s just another benefit of the AIR One, Plaut said. The hope is to have the AIR One FAA approval granted in early 2023.

Kenneth R. Gosselin contributed to this report. Douglas Hook can be reached at dhook@courant.com