10 May 2023

Sky’s the limit as airline sets sights on the future

| Matt Nicholls
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CAPE York airline Skytrans has partnered with Stralis Aircraft to develop and trial Australia’s first hydrogen-electric propulsion aeroplane.

The zero-emissions hydrogen-electric propulsion system (HEPS) will be installed on a Beech 1900D Airliner with the trial flight to occur in North Queensland, demonstrating the technology is reliable for tough local conditions and the area’s pristine ecosystems.

The announcement was made last week at the Regional Aviation Association of Australia’s annual conference in Darwin in front 80 industry experts, including the CEO of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, and chief commissioner of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau.

The aviation industry currently contributes 2.4 per cent of annual global CO2 emissions – around one billion tonnes.

Skytrans and Stralis Aircraft said they were taking a major step in helping change that by designing and manufacturing the country’s first hydrogen-electric aircraft without compromising on safety, performance or cost.

Skytrans, which is part-owned by former Cowboys star Johnathan Thurston, said it was proud to be part of an Australian collaboration that pioneered hydrogen propulsion technology for commercial aircraft.

“We are proud to be leading the nation in developing its hydrogen industry and we want to play a leading role in showing that this technology can work in aviation,” CEO Alan Milne said.

“The impacts of climate change are concerning for local communities and that’s why we are playing a major role in reducing the environmental impact of aviation.”

Skytrans CEO Alan Milne with Stralis Aircraft co-founder Stuart Johnstone after last week’s announcement.

As part of the project, Stralis Aircraft will design, build and flight test an integrated HEPS centre around an airworthy electric motor.

They are looking for strategic partners to develop a megawatt-class fuel cell system suitable for their application.

Stralis Aircraft co-founder and chief technology officer Stuart Johnstone said the project presented new opportunities for the local industry to upskill and scale-up advanced manufacturing capabilities, bringing aircraft manufacturing onto Australian shores.

“Queensland is ramping up its capacity to produce green hydrogen, ‘bottled sunshine’, from local wind and solar resources,” Mr Johnstone said.

“Stralis will take advantage of this to help companies like Skytrans continue to provide affordable air travel as the world transitions to net zero.

“This could be a win for Queensland industry and support their efforts to transition to a low carbon economy.”

Mr Johnstone said developing this innovative technology would allow them to access the $3.4 billion annual medium-sized turboprop market.

“As green hydrogen drops in price, it will become price competitive with fossil fuels within the next five years and we want to be well positioned to capitalise on the opportunities from this technology,” he said.

“When the B1900D-HE enters service in 2026, it will have comparable operating costs to conventional 19-seat turboprop aircraft and 25 per cent less operating costs by 2035.”

Griffith University is providing support to the project through the Climate Ready Initiative, drawing on the university’s expertise in climate transition, aviation and tourism.

“The project is a major step forward in progressing solutions to transform one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise,” said Griffith’s Climate Ready Initiative program manager Dr Emma Whittlesea.

“Progress in cutting emissions in the sector has been limited and quite disappointing.

“Studies show almost a third of global travellers feel ashamed to fly because of its impact on the environment.”

The retrofit Stralis B1900D-HE will have a range of 800km and will have the capacity to carry 15 passengers.

The first test flight is expected to be completed in early 2025, with certification and entry into service in 2026.

Also announced at the RAAA conference was Skytrans’ target of being a completely net zero airline by 2050.

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