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DailyTidings.com
  • Man hopes to reinvent flight with electric airplane

    Venture capital needed to launch dream
  • When aerospace engineer Stephan Boutenko read a magazine article about a Chinese-made electric airplane in 2009, he was impressed with the technology — but knew he could come up with a better design.
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  • When aerospace engineer Stephan Boutenko read a magazine article about a Chinese-made electric airplane in 2009, he was impressed with the technology — but knew he could come up with a better design.
    "I thought, 'If there's something significant in the world I can do, this is it,' " said Boutenko, an Ashland resident who does consulting work for Boeing and other aerospace companies.
    His journey to create a better electric airplane is a tale about engineering, but also a saga about the ups and downs of winning venture capital.
    The Chinese company Yuneec (pronounced "unique") International had started with model airplanes. When it built a full-size electric airplane and put a pilot in it, the company became a pioneer in manned electric flight.
    Boutenko said the electric plane developed by Yuneec had to travel at about 55 mph to achieve its maximum efficiency — slower than a car on a highway. Higher speeds drained the battery faster, cutting into the plane's two-and-a-half-hour flight range.
    Boutenko assembled his team and they launched a company named Alternair. Together, they designed an airplane that a flight simulation program showed would hit its maximum efficiency at 80 mph. The plane could fly at more than 100 mph. With such positive test results, Boutenko began his search for cash.
    "My philosophy was, 'I bet if I put together a good business plan, I can approach investors.' I thought it would be easy," he said.
    So far, Boutenko has been unable to secure venture capital or a bank loan to take the project to the next level. A major impediment is that he lacks a flying prototype, which would cost about $500,000 to build.
    "That's nothing to sneeze at. That's a big chunk of money," Boutenko said.
    If he can secure funding, the electric airplane eventually would sell for about $129,000, making it competitive with traditional gas-powered planes.
    The two-seat airplane with its lightweight carbon composite frame would fit in the light sport aircraft category.
    With only an electric motor and no moving parts such as pistons, rods and alternators found in traditional aircraft, an electric airplane would cost significantly less money to maintain and fly, he said.
    A pilot himself and flight instructor, Boutenko said the electric airplane could make learning to fly less expensive, allowing more people to fly.
    The reduced number of moving parts makes the electric airplane safer and more reliable. In case of emergencies, it would have a ballistic recovery parachute to bring the plane and its occupants down with little damage, he said.
    The plane also would be much quieter, reducing cockpit noise and allowing pilots to fly over wildlife and sensitive areas with minimal disruption, Boutenko said.
    The environmentally friendly plane could be compatible with an electric car-charging station, or be powered by its own solar charging equipment.
    Although Boutenko is in a holding pattern when it comes to actual production of the Alternair airplane, he is philosophical about the wait.
    "It's not necessarily good to be first. It's good to learn from the mistakes of others," he said.
    Meanwhile, battery technology for electric vehicles — whether they are cars or planes — continues to improve. He pointed out how the range of electric cars has improved dramatically over the past several years.
    Boutenko hopes his company will someday employ people who will assemble Alternair planes locally. The planes also could be packaged and shipped as kits for pilots to build themselves.
    "I want to see the Rogue Valley move to become the electric airplane and electric vehicle capital of the United States," he said.
    For more information about Alternair, visit alternair.com.
    Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.
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