Electric planes: the future flies high over Essex

Essex has never looked so beautiful. From a third of a mile high, roads and railways embroider a landscape far removed from urban sprawl: at least 90 percent of my vision is filled with countryside.

Even better, I can enjoy the green and pleasant land in near silence – and the safe, experienced hands of Chief Flight Instructor Deepak Mahajan.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Deepak had introduced me to our plane: the Velis Electro, made in Slovenia by Pipistrel. You’ve no doubt seen a few electric airplane designs in your time, ranging from rudimentary flying milk floats to elaborate sci-fi hang gliders.

But the real thing is a beauty to behold: simple and elegant in its profile, as if nature had designed its ideal plane. And nature is what Pipistrel and Deepak do.

Limiting aviation’s impact on the planet is higher than ever: on Tuesday it was a key point of discussion at the Abta conference in Marrakech, with most hopes pinned on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF): powering conventional engines that use energy derived from non- fossils.

Last month easyJet switched its focus from electric aircraft to hydrogen power. However, hybrid electric/fossil fuel planes have been tested for island connections in the Orkney Islands. And, as the pilot places the nimble aircraft over the lazy Thames Estuary, I am living proof that all-electric aviation is safe and practical.

“I can take off, fly and land an all-electric aircraft. It is absolutely mind-blowing,” says Deepak.

“This is a proper, certified aircraft that is making a huge difference in aviation. It’s truly a zero-emissions flight.”

The plane has one battery in the nose and another behind the abbreviated cabin. They provide almost enough energy for an hour of flight.

The trip was organized by Wingly, a platform that connects private pilots with prospective travelers. I’ve used the service in the past as an exciting way to travel from A to B: there’s no better way to book an appointment at Bristol Airport than to fly there from Elstree Airport in Hertfordshire.

Now Wingly is offering a glimpse into the future with half-hour test flights from Damyns Hall Airport near Upminster, just inside the M25 – where fossil fuel users pump CO2 like, well, there’s no tomorrow.

Deepak is a pioneer of sustainable aviation – bringing fully electric flight to the UK for the first time, teaching tomorrow’s pilots the basics of flying in what looks like an airplane from the future.

Flight training, in which pilots accumulate hours and experience, is usually a very thirsty business. With the game-changing Velis Electro, pilots can train and earn their initial license without impacting the planet.

What kind of aircraft will they eventually fly? With commercial jets again burning kerosene near pre-pandemic levels, sustainable aviation still seems tantalizingly elusive.

However, I recall that Bill Gates believes that people tend to overestimate the change that will happen in the next two years and underestimate the change that will happen in the next decade. Necessity, in the form of high oil prices, could prove to be the mother of invention for commercially viable electric aviation.

After making a final turn and landing us gently on the green, green grass of Essex, Deepak says: “The future is here – now. It’s not 10 years away.”

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