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Harbour Air signs first eBeaver sales agreement

By Kenneth I. Swartz | June 6, 2024

Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 44 seconds.

Harbour Air of Vancouver, B.C., has launched its ePlane conversion program with an order from Quebec-based Bel-Air Aviation for electric de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver aircraft.

The Letter of Intent (LOI) for three eBeaver conversions was signed on May 22 at the International Aerospace Innovation Forum, organized by Aéro Montréal, which highlighted many sustainable aviation initiatives.

“Not only are we going to electrify the 12 Beavers we have in the Harbour Air fleet, but we are pleased to offer other operators and private aircraft owners an opportunity to electrify their aircraft,” said Harbour Air CEO Bert van der Stege during an interview in Montreal with Skies.

First flight of Harbour Air DHC-2 eBeaver, C-FJOS, at Vancouver International Airport seaplane base on Dec. 10, 2019. Gary Vincent Photo

In April, Harbour Air signed an LOI with magniX for the purchase of 50 magni650 electric engines. This will help support the operator’s goal of establishing a Sustainable Aviation Hub in Vancouver that will provide electric aircraft conversions and services to third-party customers.

Most of Bel-Air’s seaplane sightseeing flights in the Beaver or Cessna 206 are 15 minutes long and operate from a dock at the company’s airport and seaplane base (CSL3/CSU7), on the shore of Lac-à-la-Tortue near Shawinigan, Que.

Bel-Air plans to use the eBeaver primarily for sightseeing business, which flies between 10,000 and 12,000 tourists a year — mostly from Europe.

In the future, Bel-Air and Harbour Air will collaborate on obtaining certification for the eBeaver’s operations on wheel-skis in winter temperatures not found on the B.C. coast.

To further stimulate interest in the eBeaver and potential sales, Harbour Air will showcase the eBeaver seaplane at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., from July 22 to 28, and will participate in the 18th annual VFS Electric Aircraft Symposium on July 20 to 21, also in Oshkosh.

Development Path

Harbour Air Aerospace Services, the airline’s Approved Maintenance Organization, has more than 30 years of experience supporting and modifying the De Havilland Aircraft of Canada models — including numerous conversions of piston DHC-3 Otters to turbine power.

In the beginning, Harbour Air had its eyes on an aggressive path towards certification, but had to quickly temper its ambitions with the recognition that Transport Canada would need time to define its certification requirements. The company also realized many of the components procured for the prototype, including the batteries, were heavier than originally specified or not ready to be certified, said Erika Holtz, lead engineer and project manager, Electrification, at Harbour Air.

Harbour Air decided to start a conversion program with the smallest aircraft in its fleet, which historically has the highest seat-mile costs. From a certification perspective, starting with a smaller aircraft also made a lot of sense.

(The eBeaver program began in 2019, before Transport Canada replaced its prescriptive design requirements with performance-based airworthiness standards in 2021. These mirror the Federal Aviation Administration FAR Part 23 rules, which were overhauled in 2016 to help make it easier to introduce new technologies like electric propulsion.)

The conversion of the Beaver into an eBeaver was a step-by-step process that included the fabrication of a longer engine mount for the 135 kg (297 lb) magni500 electric motor that replaced the 290 kg (640 lb) Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine.

Finding a place to install all the battery packs in the Beaver airframe proved to be an early challenge, noted Holtz, since the “fit and form” of the first battery modules meant that only two modules could fit in the empty underfloor fuel tank compartment; the rest had to be placed on the cabin floor behind the pilots’ seats near the aircraft’s centre of gravity.

The expectation was that the eBeaver would only have an endurance of eight minutes with reserves with the first-generation batteries. However, the aircraft’s performance was significantly better than expected thanks to a new streamlined engine nacelle, which reduced drag and the use of a new high efficiency Hartzell four-blade raptor composite propeller.

“A piston Beaver at 5,600 pounds requires 62 percent of maximum power (on a P&W R-985) to maintain level flights,” said Holtz. “With our configuration with the magni500, batteries, and a new propeller, we were able to achieve level flights at 41 percent power. So, even with the technology available in 2019, we were getting a 30-to-35-minute flight with a 20-to-25-minute reserve.”

A seaplane is one of the more challenging aircraft applications to convert to electrical propulsion because of the high power required for takeoff, the aerodynamic drag of the floats, the large downloads of a rough water landing, the high salt water operating environment, and wide temperature differentials, magniX chief technology officer Riona Armesmith told Skies.

On the other hand, Harbour Air’s seaplanes lend themselves to electric air transportation thanks to the short distances and low altitudes in which they operate.

Out of the 12 destinations the seaplane service currently serves in southwestern British Columbia, “11 of them are within roughly a 30-minute flight range and perfectly suited for ePlane transportation,” said van der Stege.

Since April 2024, Harbour Air launched several new routes, and plans to add two more aircraft to its current fleet of 45 seaplanes this summer — to include another DHC-3T Turbo Otter and DHC-6 Twin Otter.

During peak season, the airline operates up to 300 daily scheduled flights, scenic flights, and private charters, and transports about 500,000 passengers a year.

In spring 2023, Harbour Air decided to escape the controlled operating and charging environment of Vancouver Airport and fly the eBeaver to company docks in Vancouver and Victoria harbours, as well as to the town of Ganges on Salt Spring Island.

The eBeaver tour was very well received, but “one running theme was the lack of charging infrastructure,” said Holtz. “We are going to need help from a variety of different levels of government and industry partners.”

So far, the eBeaver program has been the beneficiary of a $1.6 million investment from the CleanBC Go Electric Advanced Research and Commercialization (ARC) program.

eBeaver Upgrade

During the eBeaver test flight program, Harbour Air learned a lot about the electrification of aircraft — including design considerations few in the Canadian aviation industry have encountered before.

Harbour Air eBeaver Version 1.5 was recently upgrade with the installation of a new Electric Propulsion Ion Core (EPiC) battery system from EPS. Harbour Air Photo

Holtz said the electric aviation industry has invested a lot of time developing battery management systems to monitor and control the temperature differentials between battery packs during discharge in flight — to prevent hazards such as thermal runaway. However, she said not a lot was known about the thermal management of the battery packs during day-to-day high-frequency commuter airline operations.

For example, during early testing it was discovered that batteries placed in different zones in the eBeaver aircraft (e.g. forward of the firewall, in the belly, and behind the passengers) “will be subject to different environmental influences,” and that a temperature differential of more than 15 C between battery packs “can actually stop charging” until the temperatures equalize.

In an electric vehicle like a Tesla, there is a liquid cooling system integrated into the batteries, but “we can’t afford to carry that liquid cooling onboard the aircraft for flights, or we wouldn’t have any weight left for passengers,” said Holtz.

This has led Harbour Air down the path of developing a “ground conditioning” system that will provide liquid cooling to the battery packs when the aircraft is charging at a dock or airport. The system will be designed to flood the cooling system with liquid to stabilize temperatures during a 30-to-40-minute charging cycle, and then evacuate the fluid before departing for a flight.

What’s now referred to as “eBeaver Version 1.0” conducted 78 flights over three-and-a-half years before being taken offline in the summer of 2023, as the performance of the original battery packs declined.

It’s now being upgraded to eBeaver Version 1.5 configuration with the installation of a new Electric Propulsion Ion Core (EPiC) battery system from EPS, which has provisions for liquid cooling and a better “fit and form” for installation into the Beaver airframe. One of the missions of this aircraft will be to help Harbour Air engineers develop a ground conditioning system that can function over a wide range of temperatures, including cold winters and hot summers in Quebec where Bel-Air operates.

The cockpit of the eBeaver is similar to the piston Beaver to reduce pilot workload with the throttle and prop lever retained and a new display added to monitor the engine and battery status. Harbour Air Photo

The eBeaver 1.5 started ground running at Vancouver Airport in late May and is expected to resume test flights soon. In mid-July, it will be loaded into a shipping container for a cross-country journey to Oshkosh.

eBeaver Version 2.0

Harbour Air had invested more than $5 million in the eBeaver development program through March 2024 when it began a new phase in the company’s 17-year sustainability journey.

“Rather than continuing to offset operational aviation fuel-related emissions, Harbour Air will inset these funds to accelerate the e-plane program. This means a portion of the total charges of every Harbour Air scheduled flight, scenic tour, and charter flight . . . will go directly to the research and development associated with the e-plane program,” said the airline in a website announcement.

The additional funding will help accelerate the fabrication and flight test program of eBeaver Version 2.0 (C-FIFQ) which will feature a more powerful magni650 engine and an Energy Storage System (ESS) developed by H55 of Switzerland. This aircraft is scheduled to fly later this year and will be certified under a supplemental type certificate (STC) with Transport Canada.

“The magni650 engine is a direct drive, very high torque density electric engine … which is actually two physically separated motors, and it’s four motors electrically,” said magniX’s Armesmith. “Each one of those four segments is driven by a single inverter, what we call our magniDrives, and they are rated at about 200 kilowatts each.”

In September 2021, the FAA released final special airworthiness conditions that magniX will used to certify the magni350 and magni650 engines under its Part 33 rules.

Harbour Air originally selected the now-discontinued 560 kW (750 hp) magni500 for the eBeaver, but certification requirements led the airline to opt for the heavier and more powerful 640 kW (850 hp) magni650. Holtz learned “that the regulators will require a system safety analysis for a single electric engine installation to meet the reliability requirements, and that it must be single fault tolerant to an LOPC (loss of power control) event.”

One of the safety benefits of the magni650 is that even if the engine loses power from one of the four inverters, the pilot can advance the throttle and achieve full power, explained Holtz. “This means that we can still meet the performance requirements that anybody (a regulator) would put in front of us if we had a single fault that caused a loss of power.”

To meet its target certification date of 2026, Harbour Air recently froze the eBeaver design with battery cells in the 220- to 240-watt hours per kilogram range that can be certified today. 

The ESS developed by H55 of Switzerland includes battery packs, battery management systems, and all the interfaces with the electric motor.

Holtz expects that an eBeaver certified under the first generation STC will be capable of flying two or three passengers on Harbour Air’s routes. This will be immediately followed by a second STC in 2027 of what she calls “the ‘market version’ of the aircraft … that is expected to carry four to six passengers and be able to fly for 30 to 45 minutes with reserves.”

When it comes to conversion costs, the price of a certified electric engine is expected to be similar to that of a turbine engine. But the battery system cost projections are “all over the map,” said Holtz, which also impacts projected costs when the batteries need to be replaced when they reach an 80 percent state of charge.

Holtz expects the direct operating cost (DOC) of the eBeaver and piston Beaver to be similar, but expects the DOCs of larger aircraft like the DHC-3 Otter and Caravan to improve quite significantly with a shift to electric propulsion.

Certification of the magni650 is being pursued by magniX with the FAA, while H55 pursues European Union Aviation Safety Agency certification of its battery pack. Both companies are also working with Harbour Air and Transport Canada to certify their technology in Canada.

Harbour Air has ambitious plans to retrofit other aircraft with electric propulsion, but it will probably wait until it receives its first STC, gains some operational experience, and receives feedback from potential customers before it makes any program decisions.

Harbour Air DHC-2 Beaver and DHC-3T Turbo Otter. Harbour Air plans to eventually retrofit its other seaplanes with electric propulsion. The obvious candidates in the fleet include its Cessna 208B Grand Caravans, Turbo Otters, and DHC-6 Twin Otters, all powered by P&WC PT6 turboprop engines. Kenneth Swartz Photo

Whichever aircraft Harbour Air selects to retrofit next, Holtz says her “engineering team is dedicated to decarbonize the aviation industry … one aircraft type at a time.”

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