Nearly three months after Universal Hydrogen relocated its Dash 8 testbed aircraft from Washington state to Southern California, the hydrogen fuel cell-powered airplane has kicked off its next flight test campaign. The converted turboprop, nicknamed “Lightning McClean,” took off from the Mojave Air & Space Port for the first time on Tuesday and completed a nearly 20-minute flight test, according to the company.
This was Lightning McClean’s 10th flight test overall and the first since it departed from Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, in late June. The aircraft made its debut flight over Moses Lake in March, and it set a new world record as the largest hydrogen fuel cell-powered airplane to take flight. Universal Hydrogen said it relocated its flight test campaign from Moses Lake to Mojave to bring it closer to the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
During its 20-minute sortie over Mojave, Lightning McClean reached an altitude of 5,000 feet above sea level and made several passes over the airport with its hydrogen fuel cell powertrain operating at full power during takeoff and throughout the flight. For now, only one of the aircraft’s two turbine engines has been replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s new powertrain, which uses hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors. For its most recent test, Universal Hydrogen sought to measure the reduction in noise that its new powertrain will deliver.
Universal Hydrogen’s flight test campaign with Lightning McClean is expected to last two years. During that time, the company plans to make some upgrades to the aircraft, including a new custom turbocompressor that will enable it to reach altitudes up to 25,000 feet, which is the operating ceiling for the Dash 8. As part of the campaign, Universal Hydrogen will also begin testing its modular liquid hydrogen delivery and storage system, which it says will reduce the need for costly infrastructure at airports where hydrogen-powered aircraft will operate.
Converting Regional Airliners to Hydrogen
Certification testing with the FAA will also commence later in the flight campaign, according to Universal Hydrogen. The company is working to obtain supplemental type certificates to retrofit legacy aircraft, including the Dash 8 and ATR 72 regional airliners, with hydrogen fuel cell powertrains. The megawatt-class powertrain in its 40-passenger Dash 8 is essentially the same as what it is developing for the ATR 72-600.
Earlier this month Universal Hydrogen announced that the FAA accepted its application for a supplemental type certificate that would cover the ATR 72. The agency issued the company a G-1 issue paper that establishes the criteria for certifying hydrogen-powered commercial airliners. Universal Hydrogen aims to have its ATR conversion kit certified and in service by 2025, followed by the Dash 8 in 2026.
Universal Hydrogen says it now has a backlog of 250 orders for its conversion kits, following a recent order from an unnamed customer. “This symbolic milestone places our order book for aircraft conversion well north of $1 billion, with nearly half the orders including deposits or cancellation penalties,” said Rod Williams, Universal Hydrogen's chief commercial officer. “This also translates to over $2 billion in fuel services revenue over our first ten years of operation.”
The company previously announced a conditional preorder for 75 converted ATR 72-600s from Massachusetts-based regional carrier Connect Airlines. Last summer, Canadian aviation company Avmax Aircraft Leasing agreed to convert 20 of its regional aircraft to hydrogen power using one or both of Universal Hydrogen’s powertrains. Universal Hydrogen is also working with Deutsche Aircraft in Germany to evaluate the possibility of installing its modular hydrogen capsules in the Dornier 328 regional airliner. The company recently received an equity investment of an undisclosed amount from American Airlines. Other strategic investors include Airbus Ventures, GE Aviation, Toyota Ventures, and JetBlue Ventures.