Wheels are up for electric flight training in Reedley

First program of its kind in the country will fly out of Reedley and Fresno airports

(Danny Jimenez)
(Danny Jimenez)
Darren Fraser
Published May 9, 2024  • 
11:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – The country’s first FAA-certified, all-electric aircraft training program is set to take flight in Reedley.

Joseph Oldham, who runs New Vision Aviation at Chandler Executive Airport in Fresno and who is one of the project’s flight instructors, said the program will be ready to go after instructors get certified on the Pipistrels. Instructors must log at least five hours in the cockpit as part of certification.

The Sustainable Aviation Project began in 2016 following a $1 million grant from Measure C New Technology Program. As the project took shape, money from the grant was used to purchase four Pipistrel Alpha Electro planes from a company in Slovenia. The planes were delivered to Fresno Chandler Executive Airport in March 2018.

Reedley’s involvement took off because of City Manager Nicole Zieba. In a prior article, Zieba told the Times that after the city righted itself from nearly falling off a financial precipice, she did a quick roundup of the city’s assets and made particular note of the Reedley Municipal Airport. 

This led to grant applications and discussions with the aviation program at Reedley College. Before long, Zieba found herself as one of the registered owners of four all-electric planes – the largest fleet of its kind in the U.S.

The driving impetus behind the project was the idea of making flight training and certification available to students who could not afford it. Oldham noted the price of fuel alone can be a prohibitive factor.

“It costs at least $35 to fly a gas-powered plane,” Oldham said. “It costs $5 to operate an electric aircraft for the same amount of time.” Oldham added that maintenance on the electric craft is minimal because they require no oil or spark plugs or other components of gas engines.

There are currently 15 students in the program. At present, the Chandler airport serves as the base of operations. Reedley Airport has an electric charger, and Oldham said he is waiting on a new battery pack for the second Pipistrel to arrive. Once the second plane is operational, students will fly from Chandler to Reedley. While the Chandler plane charges, students will pilot the Reedley-based plane.

Oldham said most of the students are receiving free training. The project received donations from the Wood Foundation in the Bay Area. The project also worked out a contract with Fresno Unified School District, and aviation education is now part of the district’s Career Technical Education (CTE) curriculum.

“Beginning in 2022, we had afterschool programs. These are still continuing,” Oldham said. He said there will be three one-week aviation summer camps beginning this July.

Oldham said buying the Pipistrels was the easy part. Dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proved grueling, resulting in a long flight from 2018 until this year.

“The regulatory language (regarding acceptable types of training aircraft) prohibited this type of aircraft,” he said. To get around the regulations, Oldham, Zieba and other principals in the project had to apply for an exemption.

“In 2019, we submitted our (exemption) petition to the FAA,” he said. “After that, we entered a black hole.”

Oldham said the project encountered a perfect storm of issues that worked against it.

“The FAA was dealing with the Boeing 737 problem,” he said, referencing the 2019 to 2020 grounding of the aircraft line Boeing 737 MAX after two plane crashes occurred in 2018 and 2019. “And then COVID hit in March 2020, and that slowed down everything. It nearly ended us.”

He heard from the FAA in June 2023. The organization accepted most of the language contained in the 2019 petition.

“The FAA guys, who were very nice, said, ‘Hey we can approve your petition, if you make a few changes,’” he said. “And I was thinking, ‘Really? It’s only been four years.’”

Thus, Oldham resubmitted the petition with the revised language and waited.

“On Jan. 22 of this year, Nicole Zieba received word that we got the exemption,” he said. The exemption meant the program was now FAA-certified.

In a prior statement, Zieba noted that the demand for commercial pilots in the coming years will be acute, thus providing employment opportunities for potential upcoming pilots.

“A well-known study by Boeing shows that over 800,000 new pilots will be needed over the next 20 years to meet the demand for air travel,” said Zieba.

Darren Fraser