High-flying partnership works towards emission-free regional flights

An unlikely alliance between a start-up aircraft manufacturer, a university, and a small airline co-owned by a sporting hero could make Queensland a world leader in zero emission aviation.

Griffith University has teamed up with Cairns-based Skytrans and new-kid-on-the-block manufacturer Stralis Aircraft on the Zero Emission Aviation in Far North Queensland project.

The project aims to set the global pace in decarbonising regional flights.

It’s an important goal, according to CES of Stralis Bob Criner, who quotes International Council on Clean Transportation statistics showing 50% of global travel emissions come from flights under 2200km.

Criner says the agreement between Stralis and Skytrans – which is co-owned by rugby league legend Johnathan Thurston – is an auspicious one.

“We have grand ambitions to help in this push to decarbonise flight,” he says.

“We’re working in the same part of the world, we think that it’s really essential to move this technology forward quickly, and we feel this similar sense of urgency to solve this problem as quickly as possible.

“We think we can do that with this partnership.”

Skytrans is not the only regional airline looking to a low-emissions future. The Rex Group has partnered with Dovetail Electric Aviation for the electric conversion of its 34-seat Saab 340, with the first proposed to be flying commercially within four years. Read more here: https://cosmosmagazine.com/greenlight-project/rex-airlines-electric/

Skytrans is looking at a similar timeframe, but is planning for its full Far North Queensland network to make the change.

“As you can imagine, [about] 95% of our operations are over some of the most pristine environments in the world, including the Great Barrier Reef,” Skytrans Group CEO Alan Milne said at a recent webinar.

“What we are trying to do here is talk about actually delivering the science.

“How are we going to get an airline flying a net zero emission network – not just an aeroplane, but the whole network. Skytrans is in a unique position – that’s what we will be able to deliver.

“Very few smaller airlines are committing to net zero. This is why Skytrans thought that we would take that lead and encourage other regional operators not just in Australia, but throughout the world to follow that lead and make sure that we’re actually delivering something.”

Skytrans specialises in flights from Cairns to Cape York and Torres Strait, alongside cargo flights, mail runs and charter flights. Milne said the Skytrans network includes short runways and small planes, perfectly suited to hydrogen electric conversion.

While Skytrans works with Griffith University to map the company’s emissions footprint, Stralis is working on the preliminary design for the B1900D-HE, a modification of the Beech 1900D.

Skytrans has already signed on for three of the 15-passenger aircraft with the option of a further two. Stralis will replace the turbines and jet fuel system with a hydrogen electric propulsion system (HEPS) and liquid hydrogen storage tank.

The plane will include the storage tank in the back which will feed into a fuel cell. The hydrogen will then be combined with oxygen to produce a high voltage electrical power that will turn the electric motor. The motor fires up the propeller.

Skytrans owners peter collings and johnathan thurston hero image small
Skytrans co-owners Peter Collings (left) and Johnathan Thurston intend the airline to be a world-leader in regional decarbonisation.

There are none of the carbon dioxide or nitrogen oxide emissions that come with traditional flights, and a small amount of water from the tailpipe is the only byproduct.

“We are now working on the preliminary design of the aircraft and planning the ground and flight-testing campaign,” Criner says.

“We are also exploring how we will obtain the green hydrogen required for refuelling the aircraft, where and how it will be stored at the airports and how much it is expected to cost.

“Our hope for this project is that it first and foremost reduces emissions from commercial air travel, but also puts Australia at the forefront of the global shift towards emission-free flight, inspires other airlines to act and purchase more emission-free aircraft and creates high-quality design and manufacturing jobs here in Australia.”

Stralis plans to have the B1900D-HE aircraft design complete by early 2024, ahead of construction and ground testing in late 2024. The first flight is scheduled for early 2025, with commercial flights in operation by 2026.

Dovetail and Rex expect a Rex testbed aircraft to be in the air by 2024, with the first all-electric conversion flying commercially within four years.

Initial routes under consideration by Skytrans are Cairns-Kowanyama, Cairns-Aurukun, Cairns-Whitsunday Coast, and Brisbane-Gladstone.

Also on the drawing board for Stralis is a new or “clean sheet” 45-passenger aircraft planned to hit the market in 2030.

The new and converted aircraft are expected to cost more up front, but Criner says they carry the long-term benefits of zero emissions, a good flight range, low fuel costs, the possibility of local fuel production in the form of hydrogen, and reduced maintenance costs of about 65% in comparison to turbine aeroplanes.

There is, Criner says, the possibility of a future where anyone can fly sustainably without compromise.

“I think we have to dream, and we really think that Australia deserves a place at this aircraft manufacturing table,” he says.

To read more about Stralis, visit https://stralis.aero/, and to find out more about Skytrans, visit https://www.skytrans.com.au/. You can watch a Griffith University webinar about the project at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCk-B3Y0EFA

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