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Fresno Student Pilot Makes History with First-in-Nation Flight Training in Electric Plane
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By Dean Kirkland
Published 3 weeks ago on
May 10, 2024
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Josiah Bohanon, the first person to log flight training hours in an all-electric aircraft, at Fresno's Chandler Airport on Thursday. (GV Wire/Dean Kirkland)

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A new era in aviation quietly took flight Thursday at Fresno’s Chandler Airport as 18-year-old student pilot Josiah Bohanon of Fresno became the first person in the nation to log official flight training hours in an all-electric aircraft. The milestone flight took place in a Pipistrel Alpha Electro owned by the cities of Reedley and Mendota in partnership with the nonprofit flight school New Vision Aviation.

“I’m excited to fly today,” said Bohanon before piloting the sleek two-seat plane, which is powered by lithium batteries and an electric motor instead of fossil fuels. Bohanon, who has about 65 hours of flight time and has been flying for two years, said he aims to “become a flight instructor here pretty soon.”

As Bohanon taxied the nearly silent aircraft onto the runway, a small crowd of onlookers gathered on the flight line to witness the historic moment. The Alpha Electro gracefully took to the skies, banking into the pattern for two circuits around the airport before gently touching down, with only the whisper of the electric motor and the whoosh of the propeller discernible from the ground.

Josiah Bohanon on Thursday became first person to log flight training hours in an all-electric aircraft. His flight took place at Josiah Bohanon, first person to log flight training hours in an all-electric aircraft, at Fresno’s Chandler Airport. (Dean Kirkland)

New Vision Aviation’s Efforts Paid Off

The flight was made possible after years of effort by New Vision Aviation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, along with the cities of Reedley and Mendota and the Fresno County Transportation Authority to secure FAA approval for electric aircraft to be used for flight training. Previously, electric aircraft could be flown recreationally but flight hours could not count toward pilot certification due to regulatory hurdles.

“This is the culmination of years of hard work to prove electric aircraft are safe, clean, quiet and affordable for the flight training mission,” said Joseph Oldham, CEO of New Vision Aviation. “Sometimes people ask you, well, they’ve asked me, do you think this is possible? And I have to say, yeah, it’s possible, but it’s not easy, right?”

Oldham said the low operating cost of about $5 per hour for electric aircraft, compared to $35-40 per hour for the Cessna 150 he learned to fly in 50 years ago, will help make becoming a pilot far more achievable for young people, especially those from disadvantaged communities. The aviation industry projects a need for 800,000 new pilots worldwide by 2040.

Reedley City Manager on Electric Plane Program

Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba spearheaded efforts to secure a $1 million grant from Fresno County’s Measure C transportation tax to fund the electric plane program. Zieba said that when officials from Reedley, Mendota and New Vision Aviation learned they had secured the million-dollar grant from Measure C for new technology, “Oh boy, the magic started.”

That “magic” involved petitioning the FAA for an exemption to allow electric aircraft to be used for flight training, an effort that required extensive data gathering and a comprehensive test program to demonstrate the aircraft’s airworthiness and develop appropriate training protocols. After nearly four years, the FAA granted the exemption in January 2024.

“We push the envelope and are the very first place in the entire nation where the FAA has issued an exemption allowing all-electric aircraft to be used for flight training hours,” Zieba said. “So you were standing in a moment in history today. You’re going to witness that next moment in history. And that is the very first flight training hours being logged in an all-electric aircraft.”

Planes Can Fly for About an Hour

The four Pipistrel Alpha Electro aircraft based at Reedley and Mendota airports have a range of about 70 miles and can fly for about an hour on a single charge of their lithium batteries. New Vision Aviation plans to use the aircraft for primary flight training as it works to expand its electric fleet and charging infrastructure throughout the Central Valley.

Bohanon, who has been flying a gas-powered Cessna 150 as part of his private pilot training, reflected on his motivation: “If I go to the airlines, I kind of feel like that’s kind of selfish. I take all my resources, all the stuff I’ve learned and I just support me. But if I just become a flight instructor, I use everything I learned to help somebody else.”

The Sustainable Aviation Project, the joint effort between New Vision Aviation and the cities of Reedley and Mendota, plans to expand its fleet of electric trainers in the coming years while further building out charging infrastructure to facilitate point-to-point flights throughout the Central Valley. Project leaders believe the lower cost of electric aviation can be a powerful tool for expanding career opportunities and economic mobility in historically underserved communities.

“This is just the beginning,” Oldham said after watching Bohanon’s historic flight. “In the future, I believe we’ll see electric aircraft, including those with vertical takeoff and landing capability, providing essential air service to communities across California and beyond. And we’ll see those aircraft piloted by the students we’re training today — students who never would have had the opportunity if it weren’t for the lower cost and reduced barriers to entry enabled by electric flight. It’s a win-win for our communities and our environment.”

Josiah Bohanon’s historic flight as the first person in the nation to log official flight training hours in an all-electric aircraft marks a pivotal moment in aviation, showcasing the collaborative efforts of New Vision Aviation and local authorities to pioneer sustainable flight training and open new opportunities for aspiring pilots. (GV Wire/Dean Kirkland)

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