MELBOURNE, Fla. — Florida Tech is making aviation history in the U.S.
MELBOURNE – The Florida Institute of Technology has become to the first school to both own and fly an electric plane, according to a release from the school. The school recently acquired the Pipistrel Velis Electro, a two-seat aircraft
The Melbourne-based university is the first college in the country to both own and fly an electric plane. They are now tasked with data for the Federal Aviation Administration.
What You Need To Know
>>> Florida Tech is gathering data on the Velis Electro aircraft
>>> The university has a contract to submit the first 50 hours of data to the FAA
>>> So far, only faculty have flown as passengers in the aircraft, but soon students will be allowed aboard as well
The plane, a two-seater Velis Electro, was certified in Europe, but pilot Dr. Isaac Silver, a Florida Tech alumnus and former associate dean, is the first to fly it in the U.S.
“Ten years ago, when we were talking about this, I thought, ‘oh that’s cool, but I’ll never thought I’d be a part of it.’ So, it’s funny how things develop,” Silver said.
Acquiring the plane came in part from the Emily Buehler Perpetual Trust, which donated $3.7 million to the university. That also paved the way to establishing the Emily Buehler Center for Aviation Training and Research.
Silver helped secure the $85,000 contract with the FAA to provide them with the first 50 flight hours on the plane.
So far, they’ve logged nearly two hours of flight time with the aircraft and are starting to learn more about its functionality, like the battery life.
“What we have found is that the plane seems to do better, like most electric vehicles, with these batteries, you want to store it at a rest state of charge,” Silver said. “And if we only leave it charged, like now it’s at about 64%, we’ll store it like this and then we’ll charge it up closer to our next flight. Hopefully, that will help the batteries last longer.”
Dr. Brian Kish, the current chair of Florida Tech’s Flight Test Engineering Program, helps oversee this testing regimen.
He served for 20 years in the Air Force and logged 1,300 as a flight test engineer in 49 aircraft. Kish said it’s still remarkable how much quieter this plane is compared to a normal one.
“I think everyone is getting used to just how quiet it is during the taxiing. It’s just a different experience,” Kish said. “We’re used to hearing engines roar and here we have this quiet just sound of the fan and the propeller movement.”
The plane is powered by two batteries: one that sits in the nose of the aircraft, just behind the propeller and another that’s behind the pilot’s seat.
“The airplane can run off of either battery or both,” Kish said. “So, if one goes down or loses charge or overheats, you just shut all of that battery down and you can safely fly with the other battery.”
With a full charge, Kish said that according to the airplane manufacturer, Slovenia-based Pipistrel, a pilot can get 50 minutes of flight with 10 minutes of reserve. Silver said adding additional batteries would be helpful moving forward.
“It needs slightly larger batteries and slightly more weight-carrying capacity, but the airplane is capable of that,” Silver said. “So really, just adding some additional batteries to this airplane would probably bring it somewhere close to where it would need to be for the U.S. market to be a functional airplane.”
It’s been a learning curve not only for the Florida Tech folks directly involved with this process, but the flight control tower as well.
“One of the things that we had to warn the control tower about before we went out for the first flight was that when we came to stop on the taxiway, that the engine was going to stop,” Silver said. “That’s very unusual. So normally, if you saw that, that would be an abnormal situation for the air traffic controller.”
These tests are also inspiring some of the aviation students, like fourth-year Elise Medhus, a student who traveled from the Netherlands to study in the U.S. She said getting to work with green technology, like the electric plane, was very enticing.
“It’s definitely an opportunity I wouldn’t get anywhere else. The electric aircraft industry is really young. So, we’re really trying to get out there and get aircraft certified,” Medhus said. “So, to be able to be a part of learning about the Velis Electro is a really important part for me to go in the direction that I want to go in for my career.”
Students aren’t flying in this aircraft yet, but will soon. Silver said he’s excited to see where the aviation industry is with electric aircraft and knows there are great things on the horizon.
“What’s really neat about this is we’re going to see electric flight. It’s coming, it’s going to be mainstream, the technology is developing and we’re kind of getting the first glimpse right now with this airplane of what that mainstream technology is going to look like,” Silver said.