It all started with a summer vacation. Growing up in Southern California, Greg McDougall and his family left sweltering Santa Barbara for his parents’ lakeside cabin on Nelson Island in the Sunshine Coast region of British Columbia as soon as school let out. As McDougall recalls, he spent hours sitting on a dock, marvelling at the sight of floatplanes landing and taking off. In the summer of 1962, when McDougall was 7, a ferry strike meant the only way off the island was on a seaplane. That clinched it: The young boy was hooked on planes.
In a region where people use seaplanes as often as New Yorkers call for an Uber, McDougall, 63, is known as the floatplane king. He founded Harbour Air in 1982 and operated it from a waterfront office in downtown Vancouver. With two leased De Havilland Beaver aircraft and a handful of employees, the business took off. Today, the company is North America’s largest and first fully carbon-neutral airline. In 2019, Harbour brought in CAD $70 million (USD $52.8 million) in revenue. It boasts a fleet of 53 planes and 450 employees across Vancouver; Victoria, BC; and Seattle. And, McDougall says, Harbour soon will run emission-free flights.
Aviation engineers have sought an affordable, effective, and safe way of “doing a Tesla,” as McDougall puts it, over the past couple of decades. The race is on to be the first all-electric commercial operator. Rolls-Royce is planning to trial its Accel plane next year (with a top speed of 480 kph [298 mph]), and Israel’s venture capital-backed Eviation has predicted delivery of its e-plane to its first customer, a US regional airline, by 2022. With E-Fan X, the next step in Airbus’s long-anticipated electrification journey, the European aerospace giant is betting on hybrid.
Harbour Air’s big leap forward comes from a partnership with Seattle-based electric aviation company MagniX, which has developed a motor capable of 750 shaft horsepower. “Because of airborne mobility development, this technology is unstoppable, and it’s getting more practical as every day goes by,” says McDougall. “The brainpower and money involved is snowballing, and there’s no doubt we can roll out what we’re doing to other small airlines.”
Under assembly in a 1930s-era hangar at Vancouver International Airport’s South Terminal, Harbour’s first e-plane is a De Havilland DHC-2 Beaver prototype painted in electric green and indigo blue. The model has garnered a mixed response from North America’s aviation community. At a recent industry event in Montreal, when McDougall was inducted into Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame, his e-commerce concept was met with raised eyebrows from attendees, including executives from Bombardier and Pratt & Whitney. In the age of Greta Thunberg, flight-shaming, and the no-fly movement, however, industry forecasters are quick to highlight the positives.
“Short, domestic flights are often labeled as ‘unnecessary’ by the green side of the debate,” says UK-based aviation analyst Alex Macheras. “But with Harbour Air’s decision to partner and innovate with an electric engine manufacturer, the company could become one of the first in the world to demonstrate that the future can, and will, involve cleaner, sustainable, carbon-neutral flying.”
Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at Washington, DC-based aerospace consultancy Teal Group, also believes the e-plane has legitimate staying power. “It’s an interesting experiment,” he says. “Electrical power may be feasible for very small planes on very short routes, but it will be many years before it scales upwards.”
Harbour’s real test comes next month, when McDougall, with more than 12,000 hours logged as an aviator, will pilot the e-plane prototype from Vancouver’s South Terminal floatplane dock to the Strait of Georgia. Aviation enthusiasts have touted one potential day, December 17 — the date in 1903 when the Wright Brothers successfully flew their flight machine. Will Harbour’s test flight inaugurate the third era of aviation?