Universal Hydrogen has successfully flown a 40-passenger regional airliner using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion, making it the largest aircraft to fly and cruise on hydrogen. 

The airplane, a Dash 8-300 testbed nicknamed Lightning McClean, took off from Grant County International Airport and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL.

For the test flight, one of the aircraft’s turbine engines was replaced by Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric, megawatt powertrain. The other remained a conventional engine.

When asked about the flight performance, Alex Kroll, the company’s Chief Test Pilot, who flew the aircraft, said: “During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power.”

“The airplane handled beautifully,” he added.

The flight was conducted under an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate and was the first flight in a two-year test campaign which is expected to conclude in 2025. The aircraft that will enter passenger service once this campaign is concluded will be an ATR 72, converted to run on hydrogen.

At present, the company has a healthy order book, totalling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide. It also has a total of US$1 billion in conversions and US$2 billion in fuel services.

Connect Airlines, which will begin receiving the ATR 72 regional turboprop in service in the spring, has placed an order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-500s to hydrogen powertrains, with additional purchase rights for 25 aircraft conversions. Its CEO, John Thomas, said this about the successful test flight:

“Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonisation of the global airline industry, and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first US operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen.”

“Our business model resolves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach,” said Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen.

The company is backed by GE Aviation, Airbus Ventures, JetBlue Ventures, Toyota Ventures and American Airlines, as well as several green hydrogen producers and financial investors.

(Image credit: Universal Hydrogen)