The Wright Move: The Hybrid-Electric Rebirth of the BAe 146
Wright Electric's CEO Jeff Engler confirms that the Wright Spirit aircraft is on track for certification this decade.
Founded in 2016, Wright Electric is one of the early pioneers of electric aviation.
Pre-COVID, the company generated a lot of attention thanks to a series of announcements with European LCC easyJet. For example, a 2017 Guardian article ran with the headline, “easyJet says it could be flying electric planes within a decade.”
While past grand announcements about fossil-free aviation have more often than not resulted in nothing tangible, Wright Electric CEO Jeff Engler told Sustainability in the Air that the company is indeed on track to have an aircraft certified this decade, the Wright Spirit.
Unlike conventional clean-sheet aircraft, the Wright Spirit represents a hybrid-electric retrofit of the BAe 146, also known as the Avro RJ. This choice stems from the aircraft's position as a regional jet — it is still flown by 40 airlines and hence offers a promising platform for sustainable transformation.
In particular, Engler said that “crucially, it’s in the 100-plus aeroplane category.” This matters as most of aviation’s carbon emissions come from aircraft with more than 100+ passengers. Unlike small 9 or 19-seat electric aircraft, the Wright Spirit can make a tangible difference to an airline’s carbon footprint.
Engler said the other factor that made Wright Electric work with the BAe 146 is that it’s a four-engined aircraft. This allows the company to explore distributed electric propulsion, starting with one engine and potentially transitioning to all four, making the conversion more efficient and aligned with the future of electric propulsion in the aerospace industry.
Strategic Market Selection for Wright Spirit's Debut
With the Wright Spirit, the company is initially targeting high-frequency routes of around an hour’s duration, such as Washington DC - New York or London - Amsterdam.
There are a few reasons for this: the market opportunity, the decarbonisation potential, and the opportunity for growth.
Engler highlighted the versatility of aircraft models such as the A320/A321, which are utilised for both short routes like London-Amsterdam and London-Paris, as well as for longer journeys lasting two to five hours.
"What’s interesting is that the aeroplanes that fly London-Amsterdam, or London-Paris, are the same aeroplanes that are doing the longer flights or two, three, four or five hours", Engler explained.
This insight led to a strategic decision aimed at transforming the aerospace industry. The goal was to enter the market in a way that was both ambitious and feasible.
"We wanted to pick a market that was aggressive, that was meaningful, but was technically achievable. We figured that if we could start to electrify even the beginning of these markets, it would be the perfect beachhead into the overall largest sector of the aerospace industry, the 100+ passenger aircraft.”
Milestones and Technological Breakthroughs
Wright Electric's journey has been punctuated by a number of milestones.
At the 2023 Paris Air Show, the company announced the achievement of 1 Megawatt of shaft power with its aerospace electric motor generator.
Simultaneously, the launch of Wright Batteries, aiming for a paradigm-shifting 1,000 Wh/kg pack density, underscores a commitment to decarbonise a number of transportation sectors beyond aviation, such as trucking, shipping and rail.
Jeff Engler said that the decision to start battery development was that even though “there’s been a lot of innovation in terms of reducing costs or reducing the volume of things like that, we hadn’t seen as much movement in terms of the power to weight ratio.”
Note: The power-to-weight ratio of an electric battery measures how much power (or energy output) a battery can deliver in relation to its weight. This is important because, in many applications, especially in airplanes, you want as much power as possible without adding too much weight.
Engler said they asked themselves why battery energy improvements weren’t improving two, three or fourfold, as opposed to ten or twenty per cent. Once they looked at it more closely, they realised that “there are a lot of chemistries that could get us to 800, or 1000 Watt-hours per kilogramme, as opposed to 200 or 250 Watt-hours per kilogramme today.”
Meanwhile, the successful maiden flight of an 800 kW hybrid-electric crop duster aircraft and validated motor safety through altitude simulated testing represented progress towards achieving zero emissions on shorter flights.
Navigating Financial Challenges
While these advances matter, making the Wright Spirit a reality will require a lot of capital. (We commonly hear that new aircraft development costs $1 billion or more.)
Engler wouldn’t disclose the exact numbers in response but said the company has several years of funding. He also expressed optimism about the wider financial opportunities:
“Is there a route for a startup company to raise a billion dollars? I would say that within the private equity industry, there is something like $2 or $3 trillion of dry powder — basically money that's been committed to private equity and venture capital funds and hasn't been used.”
As a result, Engler felt that there’s more than enough capital to support multiple new aeroplane platforms. However, the key is getting the product right:
“I think the question that would need to be asked is, how do you create a compelling enough value proposition to investors who want to commit to a programme like this? That’s our job,” he emphasised.
Of course, Wright Electric is one of dozens of companies looking at electric or hybrid-electric aviation. In the US, there are companies like Cosmic, Magpie, and Ampaire, all of which we’ve previously featured.
Meanwhile, even a relatively small country like the Netherlands has at least three companies looking to create 80-100 seat hybrid electric or hydrogen-electric aircraft: Fokker Next Generation, Elysian and Maeve. Is there enough room for everyone?
Engler contextualised Wright Electric within the broader landscape, acknowledging the presence of other companies in the electric aviation space. But to him, they are not competition:
“The competition is not between two startup companies or two different companies that are both trying to do clean aviation; the competition is between the incumbents and inertia, and all these other people trying to do new things."
This mirrors what Maeve’s Joost Dieben told us in May 2023 when he said that even if every next-generation aircraft company succeeded, which won’t be the case, there still won’t be enough aircraft to meet the likely demand.
Future Prospects: The Wright One and Gradual Expansion
Looking ahead, Wright Electric envisions launching a clean-sheet aircraft, the Wright One, in the 2030s.
However, Engler said that the overall vision is one of progressively extending range gains in the 100+ seat aircraft category:
"As soon as we get our first aircraft certified, then the next question is, can we eke out another half an hour of range, and then, can seek out another half an hour after that because you know if you go from one hour up to two hours, you're at a huge market. Then we'll probably get from 100 passengers to maybe 125 or 150. Can we then reach two and a half hours?"
Finally, Engler highlighted the collaborative spirit and discussed Wright Electric's partnerships with NASA and the US Department of Energy.
These collaborations focus on building megawatt-class electric propulsion units, aiming to reduce weight and advance technology, crucial elements in the evolution of electric propulsion in aviation.
Engler also affirmed the ongoing collaboration with easyJet, emphasising the airline's pragmatic approach towards exploring diverse solutions for cleaner aviation, including hydrogen. Engler said it was natural that an airline like easyJet would be betting on several technologies.
Wright Electric has been less high-profile than some of its contemporaries in the next-generation space, but it appears to be making progress with a sound strategy.
The decision to focus on larger aircraft mirrors much of what we’re seeing in the hybrid-electric aircraft space, where start-ups are shelving their original ideas of producing small commuter or regional planes and shifting to ones that will not only make a real decarbonisation difference but also meet operator market needs.
The choice of the BAe 146, in particular, is interesting. This aircraft ceased production in 2001, but as of October 2022, 73 were still being flown by airlines worldwide.
Turning it into the retrofitted Wright Spirit will give this workhorse of regional aviation a new lease of life for years to come.
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