MARSHFIELD — One of the most climate-friendly technologies in aviation debuted in Massachusetts on Friday, landing at one of the smaller airports in the state.
On a sunny day without a cloud in the sky, Vermont electric aviation startup Beta Technologies unveiled the first aircraft charging station in Massachusetts at Marshfield Municipal Airport. Beta also brought one of its experimental ALIA electric planes to Marshfield to demonstrate the charging station, which looks much like the DC fast-charging stations for cars that dot highways across the state.
The startup, founded in 2017 by Harvard grad and aerospace engineer Kyle Clark, has attracted $800 million of backing from Fidelity Investments, private equity giant TPG, and others as it races against a host of rivals to gain full-scale commercial approval for its battery-powered planes. With regulatory permission to fly cross-country on an experimental basis, Beta is building a network of more than 60 charging stations at airports along the East Coast and Gulf Coast.
The charging stop in Marshfield was part of a stop-and-go trip to Duke Field in the Florida panhandle, where the ALIA will undergo additional testing by the US Air Force.
“We’re moving closer and closer to bringing these aircraft into commercial service,” Beta chief operating officer Blain Newton said in an interview at the charger unveiling. “We hope to be certified in the next couple of years and deliver these aircraft to customers.” Beta already has initial orders from UPS and other operators in hand.
The all-white ALIA, which looks like a high-tech Cessna on steroids, has a 50-foot wingspan and can fly more than 300 miles on a single charge, weather conditions permitting. The model Beta brought to Marshfield has a single propeller at the rear and lands and takes off like a normal plane on a runway. The company also has a model with more props that can land and take off vertically.
About half a dozen more airports in Massachusetts are looking to add electric charging stations for aircraft, according to Jeff DeCarlo, the Aeronautics Division Administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which oversees some three-dozen public airports in the state. (Massport oversees the three large airports in Boston, Worcester, and Bedford.)
The use of electric airplanes like ALIA will not only improve the climate by reducing emissions from fossil fuels, but will also make connections among smaller airports more economical, DeCarlo, a former Air Force fighter pilot, said.
“We could connect communities and rural areas that don’t have much transportation infrastructure,” he said.
The town-owned airport in Marshfield, which has just a single 3,600-foot runway, seems like an unlikely spot for the first charging station in the state. But the effort was a passion project for Geoff Douglass, the son of Keith Douglass, the president of Shoreline Aviation, which manages the airport.
Geoff Douglass, who helps out at Shoreline and runs an autonomous marine vehicle startup, first heard about electric aircraft at a conference organized by NASA five years ago and connected with Beta.
At that time, the industry was focused on vertically landing electric craft on the tops of buildings and parking garages. Douglass, whose father bought Shoreline Aviation in the 1980s and heads the firm, realized that using small airports made more sense. Landing on buildings would have required developing a new air traffic control system, structural reinforcements, and new business arrangements. “We already had places that could do all that — they’re called airports,” he said.
It still took years to convince Beta to put a charger in Marshfield and get the required electrical transmission upgrades from Eversource, Douglass said. “We’ve been racing for years to be first,” he said.
In addition to the charger next to the runway for aircraft, Beta also installed an identical fast charger for electric vehicles in the parking lot. And electrical upgrades at the airport, paid for under an Eversource EV grant program, will allow for installing more chargers in the future.
After Friday’s demonstration and a ribbon-cutting at the charging station, two Beta pilots strapped on parachutes and boarded the ALIA to fly to Bridgeport, Conn.
The blades of the craft’s single propeller spun in a blur, but the engine noise was a fraction of that produced by traditional planes as the ALIA zoomed down the runway and took off over red and yellow fall foliage and into a clear blue sky.