Flying start | Monocle

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Flying above Västerbotten  in the Pipistrel Velis Electro
Charging the plane’s battery
Its tail bearing the Green  Flight Academy logo

The airport at Skellefteå, in the northern Swedish county of Västerbotten, seems to be a sleepy place. Just a few planes a day arrive here, most days only from Stockholm – and once that sas a320 takes off towards the south there’s just stillness and miles of spruce forest.

But listen closely and there’s a new and notable (though still near-silent) sound that’s being heard increasingly often: the gentle whir of an electric-powered propeller plane. In a small hangar just a few hundred metres from the terminal, we find the source of that sound – three shiny new Pipistrel Velis Electros, the first electric-powered planes to be approved for use by European flight regulator easa. We’re in luck as we stroll across the tarmac to the small hangar that houses them. After a week of April snowstorms, it’s bright and sunny with almost no wind. That means we will be able to fly.

It’s here and with this aeroplane that Green Flight Academy is launching. It’s the first professional flight school to offer training on electric aircraft and likely represents the most eco-friendly way to nab a pilot’s licence. Dozens of firms around the world are working towards building airliners that fly without jet fuel but battery-powered flight range is still very low – about 45 minutes of flying time before it’s time to land and plug in again. Still, you have to start somewhere and Green Flight Academy has decided that the technology is advanced enough for it to forge ahead. The academy is a homegrown company, backed by Skellefteå businessman Petter Mikaelsson and aimed at riding the wave of green energy and electrification projects in this small city and the broader region. The corporate group behind the academy, npb Invest AB, has legal and accounting companies in its broad portfolio and an annual turnover of €50m.

Until recently, Green Flight Academy’s head of training, Johan Norberg, was flying Twin Otter seaplanes in the Maldives. He is originally from Piteå, about an hour away, and left at 17 to attend aviation college. He has returned at a time of rapid change in Skellefteå. The highest-profile project in town, the Northvolt battery factory, which is expected to be Europe’s largest when it’s ready, should create thousands of new jobs. It’s also driving investment across the area. House prices have nearly doubled and most of central Skellefteå is a construction site as new buildings are thrown up to accommodate the influx.

Huge investments in renewable energy, including in wind farms and green hydrogen production, mean that Sweden now outperforms its EU colleagues with 56 per cent of its energy consumption coming from renewables, as of 2019. This is inspiring big projects, such as Northvolt, but also smaller start-ups. It’s no coincidence that Green Flight Academy is one of the slew of sustainability-focused businesses springing up across the home of flygskam or “flight-shaming”.

CEO Olov Hultdin

The transition is not without its challenges. Norrland has traditionally been the energy and raw-materials producer for Sweden’s more populated south. Some of the country’s most productive hydropower installations are here, as is one of the world’s largest iron-ore mines, and the high-quality steel that it produces is sent down south as well as across the world for manufacturing. But as the green energy boom gathers speed, the region needs more of these resources, especially electricity, for itself. The conundrum of generating enough sustainable power and sourcing raw materials for batteries without harming the environment in new ways is certainly not unique to Sweden but it will be acutely felt here because of the boom in energy-intensive projects.

Norberg says that Skellefteå’s sustainability boom is creating a snowball effect. “It’s a totally different vibe here compared to when I was growing up,” he tells monocle. “You can tell that there are many more people here in the city than even just a couple of years ago, which is amazing. You want to live in a city where something’s happening – and that attracts certain kinds of people too.”

Steering the flight school’s launch alongside Norberg is ceo Olov Hultdin, who is also a local. Hultdin cites the electrical-charging infrastructure installed by Skellefteå Airport as a big part of the draw to launch here because rapid charging means that the planes can spend most of their time in the air. “We understand that to be able to fly in the future we need to lower the environmental footprint of flying and that’s really the reason for us to start,” he says. “A big part of this is the ecosystem here in Skellefteå, with the wind and water power, the charging infrastructure and Northvolt.”

Velis Electro lifting off

The school’s opening comes at a time when aviation-industry analysts are predicting an acute shortage of pilots in the coming years. While the company expects the first intake of students at the academy to number somewhere between six and 10, it plans to then accept 25 new students every quarter, eventually reaching a total enrolment of 200. The 20-month course is aimed at giving those with no flying experience the skills to gain their air-transport pilot licence: the qualification needed to get an entry-level flying job with an airline. The full course, including housing, costs just shy of €100,000. In town, the academy has leased a portion of a building at the university campus to house a few classrooms and a simulator. The prefab housing where students will be assigned single rooms is just across the carpark.

The Pipistrel is the star of the show, of course. It’s a tiny two-seater that weighs in at just over 400kg and costs about €200,000 when new. Everything has been pared down to be as light and aerodynamic as possible – and it looks like it. The tail is svelte, the cabin minimal. Getting into the thing is a bit of a challenge and it helps if you are reasonably limber and not too tall.

Starting up the engine, the prop spins with just a whisper. For anyone who has been in a conventional single-engine piston aircraft, the difference is stark. A simple dashboard shows all of the standard flight information and, alongside this, one screen is dedicated to battery levels and power consumption.

Taking off, we feel small on a runway that’s designed to handle commercial jets but the test flight is surprisingly relaxing. Though the cabin is tight, big side windows give a broad view out, like in a helicopter. At full thrust, the prop makes a little noise but the complete absence of motor roar is remarkable. The little plane boasts some decent power too, and we lift off effortlessly over the evergreens.

The rate at which the battery-charge level is dropping, though, is notable. This is very much a technology that’s still in its infancy; no doubt we’ll look back on these early electric aircraft and remember how laughably low the range was. Norberg says that getting used to it is similar in some ways to going from a petrol to an electric car. He points out that it flies almost like a glider, cruising along effortlessly. “When it comes to handling, it flies exactly the same as any other aeroplane,” he says. He lets me take the controls: they feel light and responsive.

Johan Norberg checking the motor
Manoeuvring the plane in the hangar
Inside the Velis Electro

Time in the air goes by quickly: for extra safety the aircraft will sound an alarm telling you to land when the battery drops to 30 per cent. It’s also limited to flying during the day for now. So for longer or night-time flights, the academy also has a conventional Piper Archer aircraft, which costs double the price of the Pipistrel. For that you get four seats and a five-hour flying range. The school is currently looking to source a twin-engine prop as well, for the multi-engine part of the training programme, but it is putting off deciding which to buy as technologies could mature in the coming months, making it possible to source a hybrid. Green Flight Academy hopes to make its whole training fleet free of fossil fuels when it becomes possible.

It’s something of a risk to launch the first flight school using an all-electric basic trainer such as the Pipistrel. It has not yet proven itself to be a reliable workhorse for a training programme. However, those in charge at the Green Flight Academy see it as a risk that is worth taking, especially now. “It’s really exciting with all of this developing technology,” says Norberg. “That’s what drives me and that’s why I said yes to this job. You only get one chance in life to do something like this and be part of it.” 

business: Buses

All aboard

An electric bus service has injected a new playfulness into a borough of Tokyo in need of a revamp.

Fiona Wilson

Kohei Take

“When I’m designing a vehicle, I try to keep in my mind: is this fun? Is this something a child would want to draw?” Eiji Mitooka, Japan’s foremost train designer, is sitting in his Tokyo studio talking about his approach to transport design. He has designed everything from boats to bullet trains but we’re here to talk about Ikebus, the community bus that he created for the Tokyo borough of Toshima. Ikebus is certainly a traffic stopper: a 10-wheeled, bright-red electric box with a cheery face and eyelashes that spell out the bus’s name. Sitting on top is Ike-chan, a red owl that is the bus’s kawaii (“cute”) mascot. Whenever the bus pulls into one of its dedicated stops, children yank their parents’ arms, eager to board first.

Ikebus day pass
Mascot Ike-chan on top of the bus

Ikebus was born out of a curious problem facing the local government. While Ikebukuro Station, the area’s main transport hub, was seeing an astonishing 2.68 million people pass through its portals every day, few people strayed beyond the confines of the concourses and the two department stores that bookend the tangle of lines and platforms. “We looked at the foot traffic and the only thing that drew people out of the station was Sunshine City [a 1970s tower with shops and an aquarium],” says the Ikebus project leader Takehiro Ozawa. “We realised that the local government had to take the lead in reshaping the area.”

Ikebus has its  own bus stops

In a bid to increase Toshima’s appeal, mayor Yukio Takano enacted a ¥45bn (€330m) series of improvements, including an overhaul of the public parks and new attractions, such as a manga museum and an arts centre. When it came to the community bus, which was also part of the makeover, the government decided to go big: hire one of the best-known names in transport design and create a bespoke fleet of 10 electric vehicles. At ¥30m (€220,000) for each 22-seat bus, the costs were substantial but the return was deemed to be worth it. An ordinary bus would have been cheaper; a 79-seat Hino bus, for example, would have set the government back ¥26.8m (€195,000). But simply moving people from A to B wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.

“What we do is a complete project: the vehicles, uniforms, bus stops and branding,” says Mitooka, who is also updating the Seven Stars luxury sleeper train that he designed for JR Kyushu in 2013. Inspired by the Orient Express, the train, which tours the island of Kyushu in stately fashion, will be relaunched in October. For Ikebus, the designer called on the team that he usually collaborates with on his train designs for JR Kyushu.

Ikebus is a work of craftsmanship. Each bus is made in Japan with a different handmade interior featuring yosegi parquet floors, moulded plywood seats and colourful fabrics designed by Mitooka. “If I had asked a bus company to build Ikebus, they wouldn’t have made seats or floors like this.” There are nine red Ikebuses and one in yellow. “I’ve been a big fan of the London bus for years,” says Mitooka. “I love the way that the colour pops against the greenery and the grey and brick architecture.” But the London bus’s specific red didn’t work as well in Tokyo, so the team developed a new shade that is “darker than a Ferrari but lighter than a London bus”.

Child’s play
Custom parquet  floors and textiles

The vehicle’s electric technology made air-conditioning too much of a drain on the battery, so it relies on open windows for a breeze. That Ikebus launched during the pandemic, during which wide-open windows have been a must, has also been timely.

“We always knew that this would be an electric bus,” says Ozawa. Ikebus is run by the private operator Willer (better known for long-distance buses around Japan) and has two routes that take in the parks and other local landmarks. Tickets are at standard Tokyo prices – ¥200 (€1.50) for adults and half that for children – although everyone will pay children’s prices until September. Subsidies came from the Tokyo Metropolitan government and the national government, both of which are pushing the move to electric vehicles. Advertising from local businesses and hotels contributes about €220,000 to running costs.

An eight-hour charge sets Ikebus up for 60km of travel and Ozawa points out that it could also be used as a giant charging spot in an emergency (fully charged, it could power more than 2,000 mobile phones). One of the 10 buses is also available to hire for weddings and kindergarten outings for ¥50,000 (€366). Revenue projections for Ikebus have been skewed by the pandemic but the team is optimistic that tickets, events and sponsorship will eventually cover more of the ¥200m (€1.5m) in annual costs; they currently bring in about ¥60m (€440,000).

With a top speed of 19km per hour, this isn’t the bus for commuters in a hurry. “We consulted with the police to ensure that it wouldn’t hold up the traffic,” says Ozawa. “They pointed out that with all the traffic lights, the bus wouldn’t be much slower than regular traffic anyway.”

Ikebus, says Mitooka, is “both new and nostalgic”. Even the “omnibus” name recalls an older mode of transport and passengers sit in two rows facing each other. And just as he hoped, the bus brings a smile to the faces of passengers and passers-by. “After the Second World War, Japan had to prioritise economic growth and convenience,” says Mitooka. “Now it’s time to bring back the fun.”

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