On September 27, 2022, shortly after dawn, an all-electric commuter aircraft prototype, powered by more than 21,500 battery cells, takes off from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake. The airplane, whimsically nicknamed Alice, flies smoothly for eight minutes and reaches an altitude of 3,500 feet. The plane is built by Arlington-based Eviation Aircraft (Eviation) and is the first commuter airplane built specifically as an all-electric plane to take flight.
As the effects of global warming intensified in the early twenty-first century, efforts increased to develop technologies to reduce and eventually eliminate carbon emissions, which were driving the increase in temperatures. This included the development of electric-powered transportation, and while much of the attention was on automobiles, there was also development of electric airplanes. This began to ramp up in the late 2010s. Since technological limitations prevented development of a large electric-powered plane, the initial focus was on smaller planes.
Small, all-electric air "taxis," capable of carrying up to four people, had already flown many times prior to Alice's maiden voyage. One such plane from Beta Technologies successfully flew from New York to Arkansas in May 2022, a 1,400-mile journey that took several days and required seven stops to recharge the batteries. But Eviation's plan was to build a larger all-electric airplane, one capable of carrying at least nine commuters on short hops lasting one to two hours and ranging up to 200 miles. If these planes became successful, they could prove a useful replacement for some of the shorter domestic flights which had been recently eliminated by larger carriers. There had been earlier test flights of larger, commuter-style electric planes in 2019 and 2020, but these were in airplanes that had originally been gasoline-powered (one was a Cessna Grand Caravan) and had been converted to run on batteries. Alice -- named after the lead character in the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland -- was the first all-electric commuter airplane developed specifically for electric flight.
The plane measured 57 feet long and weighed roughly 16,000 pounds. Half of this weight could be attributed to more than 21,500 lithium-ion battery cells, capable of creating 1.3 megawatts of power, located in the belly of the plane. The aircraft had long, narrow wings specifically designed for efficiency, and its propellers were located at the rear of the fuselage. The plane was a carbon composite, made from parts assembled by overseas manufacturers and assembled at a hanger in Arlington; its two motors were designed and built by Everett-based MagniX. (In 2022, both MagniX and Eviation were owned by the Clermont Group, a Singapore-based conglomerate.) To keep the plane as light as possible, the craft was a fly-by-wire, an aircraft that uses computer instructions to control the plane in lieu of mechanical flight controls, such as cables. It could carry nine passengers and two pilots, though typically only one pilot was intended to fly the plane.
Various setbacks pushed the first flight back by nearly a year, but shortly after dawn on September 27, 2022, Alice taxied onto the runway at Grant County International Airport and lifted off. The plane climbed to an altitude of 3,500 feet and reached a maximum speed of 171 mph. It took two sweeping loops over the airfield and touched down after eight minutes aloft.
The flight received rave reviews from the pilot, Steve Crane: "[The plane] flew and handled wonderfully ... I hear all the other things. Hydraulic pumps. I hear the propellers. But I can't hear the engines. They're silent" ("A Milestone …"). The Seattle Times described the sound of the motor as "buzz[ing] like a hornet at the end of the runway" and also as a "whirring buzz," with the sound from the propellers audible, as it passed overheard during the brief flight ("A Milestone …").
Eviation CEO Gregory Davis emphasized to reporters that the plane was a prototype and was not the design that the company planned to eventually build. The biggest hurdle remained with technological limitations in the batteries necessary to power the planes. In 2022, the batteries in electric planes were not advanced enough to power larger commuter airplanes, which were planned for production later in the decade, and despite the optimism projected on the day of the test flight, it was plain that development of the planes was contingent on further technological advances in the batteries needed to power them. Nevertheless, that wasn't stopping Eviation from proceeding -- the company already had orders for more than 100 planes from Cape Air, DHL, and Global Crossing Airlines (also known as GlobalX), and Davis predicted optimistically that deliveries might begin as early as 2027.