Universal Hydrogen successfully completes first flight of hydrogen fuel cell powered regional airliner
Universal Hydrogen has flown a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion. The airplane, nicknamed Lightning McClean, took off at 8:41am PST from Grant County International Airport (KMWH) and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL. The flight, conducted under an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate, was the first in a two-year flight test campaign expected to culminate in 2025 with entry into passenger service of ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen.
In this first test flight, one of the airplane’s turbine engines was replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain. The other remained a conventional engine for safety of flight. The flight was piloted by Alex Kroll, an experienced former US Air Force test pilot and the company’s chief test pilot.
During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power. The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine.—Alex Kroll
Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the US and European launch customers for the hydrogen airplanes, respectively, were on hand to witness the historic flight. The company has a rapidly growing order book, today totaling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide, totaling more than $1 billion in conversions backlog and more ethan $2 billion in fuel services over the first ten years of operation.
Connect, which will begin regional turboprop service this spring, has placed a first-position US order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains with purchase rights for 25 additional aircraft conversions. Deliveries will start in 2025.
The company’s powertrain is built around Plug Power’s ProGen family of fuel cells specially modified for aviation use. The powertrain does not use a battery—the fuel cells drive the electric motor directly—reducing weight and cost significantly.
The motor, a modified magni650 electric propulsion unit, and power electronics were supplied by Everett-based magniX. Seattle-based AeroTEC assisted with engineering efforts, including design of the modified nacelle structure, aircraft systems design and integration, as well as aircraft modifications and installation of the Universal Hydrogen powertrain onto the flight test aircraft, accomplished in less than 12 months.
The test flight comes on the back of successful demonstrations in December 2022 of Universal Hydrogen’s modular hydrogen logistics system conducted at the company’s engineering center in Toulouse, France.
Our business model resolves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach. The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand new airplane. And hydrogen fueling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.—Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen
The company, backed by GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, Toyota Ventures, JetBlue Ventures, and American Airlines, as well as several of the world’s largest green hydrogen producers and top-tier financial investors, plans to springboard from regional airplanes to larger ones and to hydrogen fuel deliveries for other mobility applications using its modular logistics network.