Reedley’s electric aircraft program takes flight

FAA grants exemption to allow electric planes for flight training, Reedley makes aviation history as first in country to launch flight training program

(Danny Jimenez)
Darren Fraser
Published January 31, 2024  • 
9:00 am

REEDLEY – Last year, the city of Reedley was waiting to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regarding the exemption the city applied for to operate all electric airplanes in a flight training program – the first in the nation. Now, as of the latest update from the city, the program is ready to take flight.

The exemption from the FAA was granted on Jan. 22, approximately five months after Reedley City Manager Nicole Zieba confirmed in an Aug. 13, 2023 interview with the Mid Valley Times that the city was waiting to hear back.

“As of today (Jan. 22), we are the only place in the country with an FAA exemption that allows electric aircraft to be used for flight training,” Zieba said. “We submitted the exemption request in 2016 and it has taken the FAA this long to approve.”

She said Reedley submitted the first exemption request but others quickly followed suit – Zieba said 80 applications were in the FAA queue.

She added, “But ours is the first and only one at this point. Aviation history made!” And by aviation history, she means students in Reedley College’s Flight Science Program may soon be piloting Alpha Electro planes that were built in Slovenia.

The planes landed in 2018, long before FAA approval was granted. Prior to the exemption, only planes with a reciprocating engine could be used for flight training. Electric planes do not have reciprocating engines.

Joseph Oldham, president of Fresno-based New Vision Aviation. New Vision is a nonprofit that provides discounted flying lessons to youths and residents from disadvantaged communities. Oldham contacted Zieba and her Mendota counterpart about a $1 million grant funded through Measure C that was being administered by the Fresno Council of Governments.

Oldham told GV Wire to qualify for the FAA exemption, he had to develop a training program specific to electric planes. 

“They (FAA) were mainly concerned with safety, rightfully so,” Oldham told GV Wire. “Electric propulsion at that time was very new. To them, anyway.”

In a July 28, 2017 article appearing in The Business Journal, Zieba said, “We (Reedley, Mendota, New Vision) got together and discussed the feasibility of the project and we discussed how we were going to fund it, and coincidentally, the Fresno COG put out a call for projects on their new technology grant fund.”

Mendota and Reedley were awarded the grant. The money was used to purchase four planes, at $140,000 each. Money was also spent on buying prefabricated two-plane hangars at the airports in Reedley and Mendota. Oldham told the Journal that $90,000 was set aside to fund scholarships to pay for flying lessons for disadvantaged youth.

While not a household name in most respects, Reedley is known in aviation circles. This is because Reedley College’s aviation mechanics program is known nationally. Zieba said it made perfect sense for Reedley to pursue the funding for the planes. The advent of electric planes, not unlike the advent of electric cars, is now. Having the planes in Reedley where students in the mechanics program can receive hands-on experience gives them an edge on the competition, said Zieba.

REEDLEY, NEW VISION, MENDOTA

Zieba said Reedley, New Vision and Mendota entered into the partnership. She said the idea was to “make a three-legged stool of airports that the planes could fly between, given their limited battery airtime.” New Vision uses Fresno’s Chandler Executive Airport.

But Mendota had to pull out of the deal.

“Mendota has just decided to bow out of our partnership, because they are likely to close their airport and repurpose it,” said Zieba.

Mendota’s exit from the partnership does not affect the partnership. Zieba said the exemption applies to the planes, not Reedley, New Vision, or Mendota.

A PIPE DREAM

The Journal article quoted Brian Carpenter, who was the co-owner of Rainbow Aviation in Corning. Carpenter did not think much of the idea of using electric planes in flight schools.

“Here’s the problem – the whole concept of what these guys are doing is a pipe dream,” Carpenter said.

This comment provided grist for Zieba’s mill.

“At the time, it really made me angry,” she said. “Nothing pleases me more than proving naysayers wrong. Government can be innovative, it can be a change agent and its leaders can shoot for the stars.”

Now that the exemption has been granted, Zieba said there are a few housekeeping chores to be done. The airworthiness certificates for all four planes must be renewed and they require new battery packs. She said she expects the planes to be ready to fly in a month or two.

Zieba acknowledged New Vision students will be the first to fly the planes. She said New Vision has the exclusive use of the planes but expects the company will reach an agreement with Reedley and Reedley City College that will allow students in the school’s Flight Science Program to log hours in the cockpit.

Darren Fraser
Reporter