By Dustin Charapata
Every so often, a concept comes along that changes the way we interact with the world. Several instantly come to mind – the wheel, jet engine, Facebook. At their core, these paradigm-shifting ideas usually provide a specific answer to a general problem and are nurtured by companies with the persistence and vision to take big ideas mainstream. Bye Energy could be such a company. The new startup is looking to transform general aviation by taking the most popular plane in history, the Cessna Skyhawk 172, and turning it into the equivalent of a flying hairdryer – just plug it in and go. By moving to an all-electric platform, the aptly named “Bye Hawk” will reduce the need for fossil fuels and costly maintenance infrastructure while increasing access to flight training.
Electric flight is nothing new. The Solar Impulse, a Swiss project conceived in 2003, flew for twenty-six consecutive hours last year. The German company PC – Aero is already testing a single-seater electric aircraft. But the unique brilliance of the Bye-plane (a spin on “biplane”) derives not from the idea of an electric plane, but adaptation of the legendary Cessna 172 airframe. Odds are, if you can fly, you have done it in a Skyhawk.
So who cares? Isn’t Bye’s idea the equivalent of a flying Prius? The short answer is, yes – and that is a good thing. It is no secret that small aircraft are terribly inefficient and notorious polluters. Currently, taking a Skyhawk for an hour cruise would burn at least eight gallons of 100 low lead (100LL). Calling the fuel low lead is misleading: lead is actually added to 100LL to boost its octane rating. This is the same lead the government banned from automobile use in 1996 due to health risks and environmental implications. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that fifty percent of airborne lead could be traced to 100LL. The Bye Hawk would eliminate the need for 100LL in the most popular plane on the planet, thereby reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.
But Bye is not promising only fuel savings; maintenance costs will also be dramatically reduced. Bye estimates its electric engine will need an overhaul every 25,000 hours, versus a typical combustion engine that needs overhaul every 5,000 hours. This disparity in overhaul hours has the potential to drastically reduce myriad manufacturing processes necessary for aircraft engines. Moreover, the fuel and maintenance savings, combined with an electric engine’s inherent ease-of-use, increases accessibility to flight training. Learning to fly currently costs several thousand dollars– Bye’s 172-conversion project will drastically reduce that figure to more modest levels.
From the macro perspective, if Bye Energy can successfully convert the Cessna 172 to an electric airplane, other manufacturers will surely follow suit. The environmental and cost benefits are just too large to ignore. Bye Energy seems on the cusp of a paradigm shift that will breathe new life into general aviation and reap significant rewards for the environment.
Dustin Charapata is a commercial pilot and first year law student at University of Denver.