The Future of Advanced Air Mobility

Wright Goes Back to the Future with BAe 146 Airliner Electrification Plan

Wright Electric says it can get all-electric versions of the BAe 146 family of regional jets into commercial service by 2026. In a November 4 announcement, the start-up said it will replace the aircraft’s four turbofans with electric motors to support flights carrying up to 100 passengers on sectors of around an hour with a rebranded aircraft called the Wright Spirit.

Plans call for the development of the new motor, inverter, and propulsion fan to be complete by the end of 2022, in time for a converted 146 to fly with a complete electric propulsion unit (EPU) replacing one of the existing turbofans in 2023. The Wright team aims to be flying a technology demonstrator with four EPUs by 2024, as it prepares for type certification in 2026.

In September, the company said it had started testing its two-MW electric motor as part of a plan to develop a 186-passenger airliner with 800-mile range called the Wright 1. Jeff Engler, CEO of Wright Electric, said this program, which would require a more powerful motor, will still be pursued with a 2030 service-entry date. UK-based low-cost carrier EasyJet and Viva Aerobus of Mexico are committed to partnering for the Wright 1 project and both operators have said they will provide input for the new BAe-146-based program.

In the U.S., Wright says, the all-electric regional airliner will serve routes such as New York to Boston and Washington, D.C., and San Francisco to Los Angeles. In Europe, Paris to London and Frankfurt, Germany, are identified as early-adopter routes; Doha, Qatar, to Dubai, UAE, is being eyed in the Middle East and, in Asia, the airliner could serve one of the world’s busiest scheduled routes, between the South Korean capital of Seoul and Jeju Island.

Wright announced the initiative to coincide with the United Nations’ COP26 climate change conference being held in Scotland. “The world needs to shift to real-zero emissions, not net-zero or using sustainable aviation fuel, Engler told FutureFlight. “Operators have told us that if you want to start replacing the typical Airbus [A3230] and Boeing [737] aircraft that they are using, it has to be with something that can operate at the same altitude, at jet speed, and that is big enough [to have the same operating economics as narrowbody airliners].”

Other companies such as Sweden-based Heart Aerospace and Tecnam (in partnership with Rolls-Royce) are working on much smaller all-electric regional airliners, seating 19 and nine passengers, respectively. Wright has concluded that these will not offer sufficient commercial return to operators and that getting a clean-sheet, all-electric model to market would take until into the 2030s. It sees a conversion program around an existing airframe as being a far quicker route to market.

According to Wright, its two-MW motor is around four times more powerful than existing competitors and has around double the power density at 10 kW per kilogram. It says that its inverter will have low rates of heat loss and store energy more efficiently than other designs to support increased aircraft range and payload with the same energy storage capacity.

Initially, Wright intends to install its motor within the nacelles of the existing Lycoming LF502 engines and use its fans. Engler indicated that his company will likely partner with other aerospace groups to update both flight deck and cabin systems in the 146 family of aircraft, which were in production between 1983 and 2003.

Initially, the motor will directly drive the fans, which Engler noted is a more efficient EPU architecture than using a gearbox. That said, Wright hasn’t completely ruled out the introduction of a gearbox-based system, since this would support more revolutions per minute.

Other technical decisions that are still being considered include whether to base the EPUs on hydrogen or aluminum fuel cells. While hydrogen is lighter than aluminum, it has greater volume, which presents storage challenges. Wright is also weighing various concepts regarding how the fuel would be loaded onto the aircraft.

Wright expects to convert mainly the Avro RJ update to the 146 design that British Aerospace introduced in 1993. Engler said Wright is still considering how the conversion business model will work in terms of whether the company, its customers, or potential retrofit partners will be responsible for sourcing airframes.

More than 200 of the 146 aircraft are still in service worldwide, and around 100 of those are the more recent Avro RJ version. In-service aircraft are supported by the BAE Systems Regional Aircraft business based at Prestwick, near Glasgow, Scotland, where the COP26 conference is being staged.

Engler acknowledged that it could prove challenging for airlines to get air operators certificates covering the out-of-production type. He said that avionics systems will need to be updated as part of a move to reduce the training burden for today’s commercial airline pilots.

“Aviation has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but Wright is committed to a 100 percent reduction in all emissions starting in 2026,” Engler stated. “Because we built the world’s largest aerospace propulsive powertrain, we can build the world’s largest zero-emissions retrofit directly serving the world’s busiest routes.”