A F/A-18 fighter jet screams down the runway at Grant County International Airport, barreling past rows of undeliverable Boeing 737 MAX planes. A gleaming white airplane, the Eviation Alice, is housed in a nearby hangar and could be a critical step toward quieting those jets and eradicating their greenhouse gas emissions. The elegant twin-engine plane, which looks like a Cessna Citation crossed with a balloon animal, is entirely battery-powered and, at more than 16,000 pounds, became the heaviest electric plane to fly in September.
It’s personal for Richard Chandler, the 63-year-old Singapore-based billionaire investor who owns Eviation and MagniX, the company that manufactures Alice’s electric engines. During WWII, his father’s uncle, George Watt, was an RAF test pilot who worked on the Allies’ first jet engine. Tony Guinea, an uncle on his mother’s side, is a car mechanic turned inventor who spent years developing high-powered electric motors. Chandler, who was born in New Zealand, supported Guinea’s work for years, mostly as a favor to his mother. Chandler considered installing those engines in Manila Jeepneys to reduce air pollution, but it quickly became clear that they would always be too expensive for buses. Then, in 2017, he was told that they might be ideal.
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Conventional all-electric planes would have a lot of advantages. Cleaner air, for starters, but also massive savings on energy and maintenance costs (Eviation claims more than 40%, potentially as high as 80%). (electric motors have far fewer moving parts). However, batteries are decades away from being powerful enough to propel the large jetliners that carry the majority of passengers. Despite widespread skepticism in the aviation industry, investors have shown interest in electric aircraft, primarily cutting-edge vertical takeoff and -landing models. Billions of dollars have been invested in sci-fi visions of rooftop-to-rooftop air taxis. Joby Aviation, based in Northern California, raised $820 million in venture capital from investors including Intel and Toyota before going public in a $1.1 billion SPAC deal in 2021.
Chandler saw things differently: why not electrify small conventional planes? It would be much less expensive and simpler to replace just the propulsion system. Furthermore, fewer changes would make safety regulators more at ease. The simplest solution would be to replace old gas guzzlers on existing aircraft with green electric engines, which was his initial plan with MagniX. You could also construct an entirely new plane. As in Alice.
In 2019, he purchased a 70% stake in Eviation, an Israeli startup, to demonstrate how well MagniX’s engines could perform in an airplane built from the ground up with electric propulsion. The nine-passenger Alice, according to Chandler, is the Tesla Model S of electric aircraft. Alice, like Elon Musk’s first $95,000 battery-powered sedan, will be pricey ($7 million to $8 million, more than double the price of a basic turboprop with similar seat capacity) and range-limited (250 miles at best). Chandler, on the other hand, believes Alice will catalyze the development of electric aircraft in an industry that is still skeptical of them. “It’s the beginning of a seismic shift in aviation,” he says.
He’s used to going up against conventional wisdom. Beginning in the mid-1980s, he amassed a $2.6 billion fortune through combative, contrarian investments in a variety of industries (telecom, utilities, finance) in Russia and developing nations in Asia and Latin America. He has spent approximately $180 million on Eviation and tens of millions more on MagniX. Both businesses have relocated to the Seattle area to benefit from the Pacific Northwest’s Boeing-anchored aerospace ecosystem.
Aviation has yet to generate significant revenue. Magix was awarded a $74 million NASA contract in 2021 to research electric propulsion for larger aircraft, and it has a clearer near-term growth path: It has already sold a few engines to customers who are testing them in older aircraft to give them a green makeover. The range would be reduced, but for some aviation outfits, it would be sufficient for the time being, with future battery improvements offering the potential for more. Harbour Air, based in Vancouver, has been testing a MagniX-powered Beaver seaplane since 2019. It expects to be able to carry three or four passengers for a half-hour with reserves, which will be more than enough for its numerous local 25-minute routes.
United Therapeutics intends to deliver transplant organs via hour-long flights in MagniX electrified Robinson R44 helicopters. Magix anticipates that the FAA will approve the engines for general use in 2024. It is unknown how much they will cost. The company previously stated that a small conventional plane retrofit with its top-of-the-line 650-kilowatt engine would cost roughly the same as a routine overhaul of a comparable turboprop engine, which can cost around $300,000. However, Chandler now claims that MagniX’s engines must be priced higher to compensate for their expected durability’s Achilles’ heel: lower revenue from maintenance, which is the lifeblood of conventional engine makers.
McKinsey estimates that approximately 12,000 older small aircraft worldwide are suitable for conversion to battery electric or hybrid systems (MagniX is also developing these). Furthermore, the company is collaborating with the Southern California startup Universal Hydrogen to power 40-seat regional planes with fuel cells. Chandler, on the other hand, adores Alice’s prospects. He and other evangelists hope that similar planes will expand regional service to underutilized small airports that are too expensive for current planes to fly into for both package delivery and passenger service.
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Instead of taking trains or cars on 200- to 250-mile journeys, taking an Alice on-demand at a regional airport near you will be much more fun,” he says. “This has the potential to change the way we think about aviation for the average person. There are two unanswered questions: whether Alice will actually fly that far, and whether there is a genuine demand for it. Aviation boasts $2 billion in orders for nearly 300 planes, but nearly all of them are nonbinding.