ZeroAvia recently grabbed headlines for successfully flying the largest aircraft to date under hydrogen and battery power. The startup’s main operations are in California and the United Kingdom — last week’s test flight was at an airfield west of London — but the green aviation company has also touched down in the Pacific Northwest.
ZeroAvia is building up its R&D operations at Paine Field in Everett, Wash., and growing its workforce in the area. Washington state, the historic home of aerospace heavyweight Boeing, is proving attractive to ZeroAvia and fellow aviation newcomers such as MagniX, Eviation and Universal Hydrogen.
The startups are scrambling to develop climate friendly alternatives to fossil fuel-powered flights. That includes hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen gas burned in combustion engines, batteries, and combinations of the technologies.
GeekWire caught up with Sergey Kiselev, ZeroAvia’s vice president for Europe, to learn more about the recent flight milestone and its developments in the Pacific Northwest.
Lessons learned from the test flight
ZeroAvia launched in 2017 and conducted its first test flight on a hydrogen-electric powered, six-seat plane in 2020. The aircraft flown on Jan. 19, a 19-seat Dornier 228, presented much larger technical and regulatory challenges and required the business to quickly evolve to keep pace. Since that earlier flight, Kiselev said, “we basically professionalized our small company.”
The Dornier 228 was outfitted with a prototype of the company’s hydrogen-electric powertrain on the left wing and a petrol-fueled engine on the other.
“The systems worked as predicted,” Kiselev said. “We were happy that the hydrogen fuel cell behaved very stably. There were no surprises.” Another plus: the powertrain produced more thrust than expected.
Expansion at Paine Field
As part of an agreement with Alaska Airlines, ZeroAvia in February will start conducting R&D at two hangars at Paine Field. The company also recently entered a lease agreement to use a third hangar at the field.
In this new space, ZeroAvia will take delivery of a De Havilland Q400 aircraft from Alaska. The startup plans to outfit the 76-seat plane with its hydrogen-electric powertrain for demonstration purposes.
As the company keeps expanding, it still hasn’t decided where its North America manufacturing site will be, Kiselev said, but Washington state remains in the running. The startup has about 30 employees in Seattle and Everett and expects to double that number in the near future.
Could a Boeing deal be in the works?
Boeing still has significant operations in Everett — could a partnership between the old and new guard be taking shape?
ZeroAvia is talking to multiple aircraft manufacturers, Kiselev said, “and Boeing is one of them. We cannot share anything in public at this point, but, of course, Boeing is thinking about how the sustainability space will develop.”
The startup is already realizing the perks of the aviation titan’s presence, which include the region’s pool of experienced aerospace employees and a well-developed supply chain.
“It is already sort of collaborative,” Kiselev said. “We benefit from the existence of Boeing, and are looking forward to a much deeper relationship with them.”
Predictions on the first commercial flights
ZeroAvia is aiming for commercial flights powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2025. The company has selected the Cessna Caravan, a plane first created in 1982 that typically can carry nine passengers, as its “launch airframe,” Kiselev said.
So where might passengers book a ticket on ZeroAvia’s first commercial flights?
“It’s a good question,” Kiselev said. The answer in large part comes down to approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration or its U.K. counterpart, the Civil Aviation Authority.
Still, Kiselev leans toward the U.S. “It is likely that the launch customer will be in America,” he said.