Universal Hydrogen completes 1st flight of regional airline

Largest hydrogen fuel cell powered airplane to take to the skies & largest to cruise principally on hydrogen

Universal Hydrogen completes 1st flight of regional airline
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Universal Hydrogen flew a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.

"The airplane, nicknamed Lightning McClean, took off at 8:41am PST on March 2 from Grant County International Airport (KMWH) and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL," says an official release.

The flight, conducted under an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate, was the first in a two-year flight test campaign expected to culminate in 2025 with entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen, the release added.

"Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the U.S. and European launch customers for the hydrogen airplanes, respectively, were on hand to witness the historic flight. The company has a rapidly growing order book totaling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide, totaling over $1 billion in conversions backlog and over $2 billion in fuel services over the first ten years of operation."

John Thomas, CEO, Connect Airlines says: “Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonisation of the global airline industry, and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first U.S. operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen. Connect, which will begin regional turboprop service this spring, has placed a first-position U.S. order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains with purchase rights for 25 additional aircraft conversions. Deliveries will start in 2025. We have committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline, and this historic flight, taking hydrogen, which can be made with nothing but sunshine and emitting only water, is a key milestone on our journey."

Alain Regourd, President, Amelia adds: “With this technology and the improvement of government positive regulations, I am confident that we can turn the tide of public sentiment and once again make aviation a shining beacon of technological optimism."

In the test flight, one of the airplane’s turbine engines was replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain. "The other remained a conventional engine for safety of flight. The flight was piloted by Alex Kroll, an experienced former U.S. Air Force test pilot and the company’s chief test pilot.

“During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” says Kroll. “The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine.”

The test flight follows the successful demonstrations in December 2022 of Universal Hydrogen’s modular hydrogen logistics system conducted at the company’s engineering centre in Toulouse, France, the release said. “Our business model resolves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach,” says Paul Eremenko, Co-Founder and CEO, Universal Hydrogen. “The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand new airplane. And hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”

The company, backed by GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, Toyota Ventures, JetBlue Ventures and American Airlines as well as several green hydrogen producers and financial investors, plans to move from regional airplanes to larger ones and to hydrogen fuel deliveries for other mobility applications using its modular logistics network, the release added.

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