Universal Hydrogen wraps up first flight of hydrogen regional airliner

A 40-passenger small airplane operated by Universal Hydrogen used hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion. From Grant County International Airport (KMWH), the aircraft, known as Lightning McClean, took off and made a 15-minute flight to a height of 3,500 MSL.

The first of a two-year flight test campaign that will culminate in the introduction of hydrogen-powered ATR 72 regional aircraft into passenger service in 2025 was undertaken under the auspices of an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate. Witnessing the historic flight were representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the hydrogen aircraft’s US and European launch customers, respectively. The company’s order book is expanding quickly; as of now, it includes 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers across the globe, with a backlog of conversions totaling over $1 billion and fuel services totaling over $2 billion over the company’s first 10 years of existence.

“Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonization of the global airline industry and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first US operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen,” said John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines. 

With purchase rights for an additional 25 aircraft, Connect, which will launch regional turboprop service this spring, has signed a first-position US order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional aircraft to hydrogen powertrains. In 2025, deliveries will begin.

The aircraft’s initial test flight used a fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain from Universal Hydrogen in place of one of the turbine engines. For the sake of flying safety, the other engine was left as-is. Alex Kroll, the company’s chief test pilot and a seasoned former U.S. Air Force test pilot, piloted the flight.

The company’s powertrain is based on the ProGen family of fuel cells from Plug Power, which have been specially developed for use in aviation. The powertrain’s use of fuel cells instead of batteries to directly drive the electric motor, which substantially reduces weight and cost, is one of the design’s distinctive features. Everett-based magniX provided the motor, a modified magni650 electric propulsion unit, and power electronics. The modified nacelle structure, aircraft system design and integration, aircraft modifications, and the installation of the Universal Hydrogen powertrain onto the flying test aircraft, all of which were completed in less than a year, with assistance from Seattle-based AeroTEC.

The test flight follows the company’s modular hydrogen logistics system’s successful demonstrations at its engineering facility in Toulouse, France, in December 2022.

With the support of GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, Toyota Ventures, JetBlue Ventures, American Airlines, as well as some of the biggest green hydrogen producers and top-tier financial investors, the company intends to use its modular logistics network to transition from regional airplanes to larger ones and to hydrogen fuel deliveries for other mobility applications.

The hydrogen-powered aircraft is not merely a ground-breaking new invention; it is also a representation of optimism and advancement, a light in a dark world.

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