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MEBAA (Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association)
MEBAA (Middle East & North Africa Business Aviation Association)
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OC makes first battery-powered point-to-point helicopter flight
A 3rd generation electric helicopter has achieved an historic airport-to-airport cross country flight 75 years after the first English Channel heli crossing. The e-R44 uses quick-swap batteries rather than recharging.
The e-R44 development team. (Photo by Dan Megna)
Read this story in our December 2022 printed issue.

A modified all-electric Robinson R44 helicopter has been flown by Part 135 OC Helicopters CEO and pilot Ric Webb and United Therapeutics Corporation (Lung Biotechology parent company) CEO and pilot Martine Rothblatt on a 20 minute flight from Jacqueline Cochran Regional airport near Coachella to Palm Springs International airport in California. The flight, performed in cooperation with Tier 1 Engineering, equalled the 21nm distance of the first commercial helicopter flight across the English Channel on 25 September, 1947. OC Helicopters is planning to use the electric R44 for organ delivery services.

Tier 1 president Glen Dromgoole says: “Progress in the development of all-electric propulsion is similar to other periods of significant advance in aviation. The first aircraft flew short distances, and many people were afraid to ride in the new flying machines. At the start of the jet age there was widespread scepticism about the commercial viability of the turbine engine. Today's historic flight demonstrates the potential of all-electric rotorcraft, and we are thrilled by this achievement.”

The eR44 was powered with a magniX magni250 electric propulsion unit (EPU), retrofitted into the helicopter together with a battery system developed by Tier 1 Engineering.

"Building from our first flight of the eR44 helicopter last June, the successfully completed point-to-point flight takes us a step closer to the sustainable transport of life-saving organs," says magniX CEO Nuno Taborda. "magniX is excited to be part of an initiative that will positively affect those in need of urgent medical care. This is only the start of the applications for electric helicopters, which have a bright future as low-cost, carbon-free, reliable alternatives to combustion engine models."

The e-R44 uses a novel quick-swap technology for its helicopter battery packs to enable return trip flights without waiting for a recharge. The time required to swap a battery pack is 15 minutes versus one hour for a full recharge. The specific cross-country route for the historic flight was chosen based upon FAA approval.

“These flights are the building blocks that lay the foundation where our future can continue to soar. I am excited and honoured to be part of this amazing team, this historic event and furthering the advancement of making blue skies green,” says Webb.

Rothblatt adds: “Lung Biotechnology is committed to delivering life-saving transplantable organs with a zero-carbon footprint. It is fully possible to save patients' lives while ensuring a livable planet. Today's historic inter-city electric helicopter flight demonstrates that many organ transport distances are doable with electric aircraft using today's technology. We are committed to achieving FAA certification of this electric helicopter and to using newer energy cells to extend our ranges to hundreds of miles in the next few years.”

The third generation all-electric e-R44 is designed to deliver manufactured organs for transplant by United Therapeutics, the biotechnology company responsible for the world's first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human patient, and for creating the world's first full size 3D bio-printed organs. United Therapeutics plans to use electric and SAF-fuelled fixed wing aircraft to deliver transplantable organs long distances to airports and then to use the electric helicopters and eVTOLs for the shorter hops such as from the airports to the transplant hospitals. In October 2021, Unither Bioelectronics, a United Therapeutics subsidiary, accomplished the world's first delivery of a lung for transplant by electric drone between two hospitals in downtown Toronto, Canada.

Since December 2019, magniX has also provided the technology to power other first flights, including that of Harbour Air's eBeaver, a Cessna eCaravan and most recently, in September 2022, Eviation's all-electric commuter aircraft, Alice. Tier 1 Engineering is currently working with the FAA on the eR44 project to obtain a supplemental type certificate (STC).

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