Jekta is bringing a new electric aircraft to market, the PHA ZE-100 amphibious flying boat
In the 84 years since the Heinkel He 178, the world’s first jet-powered aircraft took off on its maiden sortie, the aviation industry has come to rue the fact that turbine engines, like the internal combustion engines that preceded it, runs on fossil fuel.
COP28 finally brought an admission from world leaders that they must end our reliance on fossil fuels. Aviation is already working hard to achieve the ICAO’s aspirational goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. New propulsion technologies have an intriguing role to play in the net-zero challenge and aviation is once again entering a new era.
Eliminating carbon emissions is the imperative driving electric aircraft development, and electric powertrains also opening up new possibilities, especially in urban and advanced air mobility. The industry has been enchanted by the utopian promise of eVTOL craft, electric flying taxis taking off and landing vertically between city vertiports. The eVTOL vision is exciting, the practicality less so, but the advanced air mobility concept is not without merit.
Electric aircraft are quieter than their turbine brethren and emit no fumes, making them good neighbours, even in an urban setting. But how can urban air mobility be achieved outside vertical flight? The answer to that, according to a handful of start-ups, including Switzerland’s Jekta, is an electrically powered amphibious aircraft, a flying boat that serves multiple operating parameters wherever there is land or water, yet is emission-free.
The power of emission-free aviation, introducing the PHA ZE-100
Jekta proposes a 19-seat aircraft certified to EASA CS-23 and FAA FAR-23 standards. Capable of operating to and from any suitably sized water body in a swell of up to 1.2m, the aircraft is an amphibious flying boat, equally at home on a runway, unpaved landing strip, or on the water. Jekta’s CEO, George Alafinov, explains: “Humans have always settled and built their homes around water, whether it be rivers, lakes or on the coast. Virtually every major city therefore has an almost ready-made base for seaplane operations with little requirement for additional infrastructure.” The seaplane market has been steadily growing over the past few years, with both developed and developing countries looking for innovative and efficient ways to transport people and goods over water. This trend is expected to continue, with a projected annual growth rate of 5.7% from 2021 to 2028, according to a report by Market Research Future. Statistics also note that by 2030 the population living in megacities, coastal cities and islands will reach more than a billion people, and by 2100 that number will quadruple. “With an increase in living standards, travel keeps growing exponentially, which is why we are developing the PHA-ZE 100 to operate anywhere where there is a body of water that is wide enough to take the airframe size, and that can have pontoons and charging equipment/fuel cells located on the site. Routes will connect areas previously limited by their geographic situation and lack of possibility for airport infrastructure,” says Alafinov.
The team behind Jekta stands out for its real-world experience designing, building, certifying and delivering seaplanes; around 30 of the Rotax piston-engine Borey amphibian ultralight have been delivered, along with slightly fewer of the eight-seat, twin-engine LA-8 amphibian. Jekta’s new aircraft is designated PHA ZE-100, for Passenger Hydro Aircraft Zero Emission. It is being designed with sustainability in mind, through careful choice of materials, production processes and recycling at the end of its useful life.
In June 2022, Jekta announced its intention to build a modern, sustainable PHA ZE-100 production facility at the Swiss Aeropole business and technology park in the Canton of Vaud, Switzerland. That same month, Jekta also revealed that it would be working with Italy’s MBVision on aspects of the aircraft’s design; since then, Honeywell has announced its intention to come onboard as an avionics supplier and Alafinov expects to complete an MoU with French deep tech start-up Metavonics for control hardware in 2024.
The latest PHA ZE-100 design iteration presents an aircraft whose traditional appearance hides its futuristic heart. Aside from multiple motors – as many as eight, four per wing seems likely at the time of writing – the PHA ZE-100 would not look out of place alighting anytime between 1935 and 2025, yet it embodies the very latest in avionics, propulsion and materials.
Of classic flying boat configuration, the PHA ZE-100 has a single-step hull and stabilising floats strut mounted under each outer wing panel. The nose undercarriage leg retracts into a sealed bay under the cockpit, while the main landing gear retracts upwards and inwards to lay semi-recessed in vertical fuselage bays under the wing centre section; the arrangement is reminiscent of that employed on amphibious versions of the Consolidated Catalina.
The Jekta team is applying CAD experience gained on the Borey to the PHA ZE-100, along with its familiarity with composite materials. Always with sustainability in mind, the team plans to build the PHA ZE-100 using as much natural material as possible and consideration has been given to using cork as a major element in the cabin floor structure.
The motors drive relatively small-diameter propellers and their position on the high-wing’s leading edge keeps them clear of water spray. Energy will be stored in batteries, with hydrogen fuel cells a likely alternative. Jekta expects to make the battery packs, or ‘energy blocks’ in its terminology, easily removeable for charging and maintenance.
Re-charging to full capacity using mains electricity is expected to take around 45 minutes after a typical flight. A solar charging station will also be available, further improving the aircraft’s sustainability credentials and providing a real-world alternative to mains electricity during remote operations.
The PHA ZE-100’s unpressurised cabin will be equipped for a maximum 19 passengers in an ‘Economy’ configuration, with provision for a folding cabin crew seat; two pilots will be accommodated in the extensively glazed cockpit set into the streamlined forward fuselage, although the aircraft will be equipped for single-pilot operation. Jekta intends that the PHA ZE-100 should deliver an exceptional passenger experience, even on short flights, and has therefore sized the aircraft’s hull to provide a wide cabin. Even with the 2+1 Economy seating, therefore, the aisle is wide enough for easy access and passengers may expect seats comparable in width and comfort to those on a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320.
The generously proportioned cabin is easily adaptable to other missions and, considering the remote communities the PHA ZE-100 might one day connect, Jekta has presented a series of ‘Combo’, or combi, layouts. ‘Combo Economy’, for example, includes 13 passenger seats and the folding crew seat, with cargo stored forwards. Potential layout renderings show a large door set forward of the propeller discs on the port side, configured in two sections to allow a smaller portion adequate for crew and passenger use, or a larger aperture for easy freight loading.
In a scenario where carbon-zero flying is possible from water to water, water to land, land to water and land to land, all with the same airframe, the case for companies to win back time by flying executives on short local hops that might otherwise have been completed by road or rail is compelling. Jekta therefore also proposes an ‘Executive’ cabin layout comprising nine ‘Economy’ seats in three 2+1 rows aft, and a club-four arrangement of ‘Premium’ seats forward.
An even more comfortable and spacious configuration is achieved in ‘Full Executive’, with club fours fore and aft, and an additional two forward-facing Premium seats behind the cockpit. For operators or individuals seeking the ultimate comfort, Jekta’s VIP cabin offers a club four in the rear cabin, two folding crew seats and a forward lounge with chaise seating.
Finally, in a nod towards experiential travel and reminiscent of the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop and PC-24 jet, Jekta has a ‘Combo Executive’ layout. Fully exploiting the large forward door, it combines cargo – Jekta shows a pair of motorcycles in its rendering – with six Premium seats and one folding seat in the rear cabin.
Alafinov sees genuine potential for the aircraft as a small regional airliner, but also notes that sightseeing offers a realistic early opportunity for operators and passengers to gain experience with the machine. “The PHA ZE-100 presents comfortable sightseeing accommodation in any of its seating configurations and its large cabin windows offer an exceptional view especially suited to providing spectacular views from the lower altitudes at which such missions are likely to be flown. We’ve also included a lavatory option from the start as we know battery technology will continue improving so lengthening flight times,” explains Alafinov.
It is also worth noting that a large skylight is planned for the forward cabin roof, flooding the area with natural light and contributing to a bright, airy cabin that might offer reassurance to tourists nervous of their first flight in a smaller aircraft. The high wing means passengers sitting on the side towards which the aircraft is banking will suffer less restriction to their view than on a low- or mid-wing type.
Beyond sightseeing, Jekta has schemed an air ambulance configuration with ample space for three stretchers and seats for medical attendants. Its range means PHA ZE-100 medical evacuations are likely to be relatively local compared to those flown by specially equipped business jets, but this is not the market Jekta envisages. The aircraft is not competing with the likes of rapid emergency response delivered by a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) operator. Instead, the PHA ZE-100 is optimised for short medevacs where difficult terrain or poor road connections mean a few minutes in the air could replace a land ambulance journey of several hours.
Such missions are regularly flown by helicopters, but HEMS aircraft are seldom configured for more than one stretcher patient. It is also true that relatively few people have experienced helicopter flight and it can be disorientating, especially for a seriously unwell patient; the lack of vibration in a fixed-wing aircraft compared to a rotary-wing may also be a factor where patient movement between medical facilities rather than emergency care is required.
For a more in depth understanding of the PHA ZE-100’s potential, whether equipped for passenger or freight operations, as a combi, an ambulance or for some other special mission, it is informative to look back several decades. Through the 1920s and early 1930s, much of South America, especially the Amazon basin, was opened to aerial navigation by crews employing mostly Junkers airliners equipped with float alighting gear. Their pioneering efforts proved the practicality of connecting isolated communities with aircraft capable of operating from the region’s waterways.
The covid pandemic refocused attention on these communities when the only means of delivering vaccine to some of them was by air, using helicopters. Life-critical missions require any means necessary but even assuming the availability of a suitable landing site, conventional helicopters may not be suited to operations within a delicate ecosystem like the rainforest, owing to their noise and the emissions from their internal combustion or turbine engines. There is also the challenge of supplying avgas or Jet A to remote sites and then storing it safely.
Electrically powered and paired with a solar charger, the PHA ZE-100 promises to revitalise the connectivity demonstrated 100 years ago, without the environmental concerns and operational constraints of a helicopter. Mixed passenger/freight operations could be a boon for indigenous communities living around water, while the aircraft’s minimal environmental impact suits it well to scientific support missions.
Charging an electric aircraft at a remote location via solar energy makes a great deal of sense in, say, Brazil, India, South Africa or Turkey, but less so in Alaska, Canada, Finland or anywhere in Northern Europe. There is a degree of irony in the fact that remote communities in Canada, for example, may struggle to maintain reliable supplies of avgas or Jet A but are rarely without a diesel generator. Equipped to energise a charger, a generator makes a ubiquitous energy source for electric aircraft and a sustainable one too, if biodiesel is available.
Under Alafinov’s guidance, the Jekta team has so far envisaged an advanced, sustainable aircraft suitable for multiple roles and capable of delivering true advanced air mobility. Nonetheless, even as he continues recruiting investors, Alafinov is realistic about the market prospects not only of the PHA ZE-100 but all electric aircraft. “Sustainability is rightly a driving factor in new aircraft development, but operators will not exchange their existing aircraft for electric models unless the business case adds up. It’s therefore our job to deliver a sustainable aircraft with lower operating costs than the legacy machines they operate today.”
Illustrating the point, Jekta has devised what it calls the ‘Jekta Factor’, a formula enabling direct comparison of operating costs between turboprop and electric aircraft. The cost of Jet A fluctuates little region by region, unlike the cost of electricity, which shows marked variation. As a result, Jekta’s own numbers show weaker market prospects for electric aviation in countries where electricity prices are high – Germany and the UK, for example – and much healthier prospects where they are low, in regions including the Gulf, India and parts of Africa. Lower operating costs mean increased profits or a balance of profit and cheaper fares, meaning the PHA ZE-100 could connect isolated populations and extend air travel to a demographic previously unable to afford it. “Compared with similar 19-seat aircraft the PHA-ZE 100 comes out significantly cheaper on every variable, with Jekta aiming to dramatically lower the operating costs by and reduce the per-passenger-per-hour fuel costs by nearly 80%,” says Alafinov.
By mid-December 2023, Jekta had signed a ten-aircraft letter of intent with Gayo Aviation and a commitment for up to 50 PHA ZE-100s with India’s Maritime Energy Heli Air Services (MEHAIR). Gayo Aviation provides private and specialist aviation services, including experiential tourism, globally. Its aircraft will be configured for 19 passengers and the deal includes ground support equipment for charging and replacing the PHA-ZE 100’s batteries; training for two pilots and two technicians; and a three-year airframe warranty.
India has a proven but underdeveloped potential for seaplane operations, left dormant largely due to a lack of suitable modern airframes. MEHAIR has signed for ten aircraft with options on 40 more, with first delivery, in 19-seat layout, around 2029 and anticipates using the aircraft for tourism and connecting towns and cities currently built around water and without aviation services.
We are unlikely to witness a return of the giant luxury flying boats of the past, but seaplane developers, Jekta among them, promise the dawn of an era in which new, sustainable high-tech seaplanes deliver genuine advanced air mobility. In the case of the PHA ZE-100, that mobility is available wherever there is a suitable space to alight on the water or land on a runway and, what’s more, favourable operating costs promise to bring air transport to regions where ticket prices have traditionally excluded many people from flying