University of Waterloo is leading the charge in Canada's electric aviation evolution.

Backed by Government of Canada funding, the experts at the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) and Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre (WWFC) achieved a historic milestone when their tiny, two-seater Pipistrel Velis Electro made its inaugural flight. The Velis Electro is certified to fly in Europe and is being evaluated with an end goal to become Canada’s first type-certified electric plane.

Thanks to the WISA team’s efforts, this is just the beginning of electrically propelled flight in the country. Working with WWFC staff, WISA researchers have demonstrated that the Velis Electro can pass each stage of its flight program under demanding Canadian conditions. Their tests at the Region of Waterloo International Airport are providing conclusive evidence that electric planes can help reverse a serious pilot shortage in Canada while making the aviation industry more environmentally sustainable.

Electric plane parked on ground

A shot of the Pipistrel Velis Electro at the Region of Waterloo International Airport

Canada needs new pilots — by one estimate, more than 7,000 by 2025. Electric planes could help deliver some of them. For student pilots, learning to fly on the Velis Electro is almost identical to the experience they would have on a conventional, internal-combustion-powered trainer. But because the fuel for a gas-powered plane costs far more than the electricity for the Velis Electro, training a pilot on the e-plane promises to be more economical. It could make learning to fly more affordable to more people, thereby increasing Canada’s pool of aviation talent.

WWFC instructors who learned how to fly the Velis Electro from Pipistrel instructors now share the electric flight experience with the research team. Two of the team members were recently hired by Sunwing Airlines. According to Dr. Paul Parker, a key player in WISA’s Pipistrel Velis Electro project, the move shows that the airline industry recognizes the talent of Waterloo’s aviation students and their diverse training experience — including time in the e-plane — and is ready to employ them.

In time, the Velis Electro could become a popular trainer, even though it can only fly short distances and for a maximum of 50 minutes with current battery technology. Transport Canada has granted the Velis Electro a Special Certificate of Airworthiness (Limited) enabling the research flights and the sharing of results with the federal agency. This is part of the evaluation process for using the aircraft in flight training throughout Canada.

The Velis Electro carries environmental benefits, too. At a time when the world is searching for ways to slash emissions, the aviation industry must address its carbon footprint — which accounts for more than two per cent of all global emissions. According to Parker, who is also a professor emeritus at Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise and Development, using electric trainer planes could save 1,000 tonnes of carbon emissions over a working lifetime of 20 years if flown for the flight-school average of 1,000 hours a year. If other Canadian flight schools begin using the Velis Electro, aviation industry emissions would start to drop.

Parker and his team have been working with the Velis Electro since it arrived in Canada last October.

Phase one involved becoming acquainted with the aircraft, where researchers conducted charge and discharge cycles simulating flights while the aircraft remained grounded. In phase two, they took off in the Velis Electro, completed standard short circuits around the airport and landed. In phase three they flew to a designated practice area for performing exercises like stalls and steep turns. Phase four is currently underway with flights to a nearby airport

The project’s next goal is for the Velis Electro to be approved for commercial use, allowing it to be used at flight schools across Canada to train new pilots. To facilitate this process, WISA sent a WWFC maintenance

engineer to Slovenia, where the Velis Electro is manufactured. The engineer is now certified to perform maintenance on the aircraft and can also provide training to others. This certification will enable the wider adoption of the Velis Electro in Canadian flight schools in the future.

“This plane is performing as it’s meant to,” explains WISA’s Parker. “This is a national industry that we are changing. I hope that a year from now you can purchase electric flight training in Canada. This is just the beginning.”

WISA received a Government of Canada investment of nearly $9.2 million, through the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario). WISA is supporting 39 Research for Impact projects, including its research with Velis Electro, which received two funding allocation