Student pilots battery-powered airplane over historic Lehigh-Lafayette football game
EASTON, Pa. - Lafayette College showcased some cutting-edge technology for its age-old rivalry game against Lehigh University Saturday.
- The annual Lehigh-Lafayette rivalry game featured a flyover by an electric plane
- The event was the brainchild of Remy Oktay, a junior at Lafayette
- The goal was to raise awareness and interest in electric planes, which are cheaper to operate than conventional aircraft
Lafayette Junior Remy Oktay flew a Pipistrel Alpha Electro some 500 feet above Fisher Stadium, where he performed figure eights ahead of the game. The college billed the two-seater aircraft's aerial display as the first flyover at a sporting event by an electric plane.
No one confused the pre-game appearance with the Blue Angels, the U.S. Navy squadron known for roaring over air shows and Super Bowls. Given the craft’s size, low speed and quiet engine, there’s no mistaking an Alpha Electro for a fighter jet.
“This will be what we’re coining the anti-flyover,” Oktay said during a tailgate on campus ahead of takeoff. “We’re not rumbling the stadium. We’re not making everybody deaf.”
Whatever you call it, it’s been in the works for months. Oktay, who’s majoring in engineering and environmental sciences, pitched the idea to Lafayette officials with the hope of sparking interest in electric planes. While the technology has a long way to go, he said he’s hopeful it can make aviation more accessible and environmentally friendly. The electricity needed to fly the plane is much cheaper than the fuel similar-sized aircraft use.
“Getting people aware of that and getting people to be excited in that, invested in it, will only help to accelerate that adoption and innovation.”Remy Oktay, Lafayette student
“Leading up to it, so many people have said, ‘I didn’t even know that electric planes existed,’” Oktay said. “Getting people aware of that and getting people to be excited in that, invested in it, will only help to accelerate that adoption and innovation.”
College officials signed off on the idea fairly quickly, but that was the easy part, Oktay said. He then needed to find an owner willing to play ball, figure out how to get the plane to Lafayette and clear the flight with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Alpha Electro is a rare sight in American skies. Only a dozen or so are registered in the United States, Oktay said. Using FAA registration data, he was able to track down the owners and begin making cold calls. He eventually connected with Lindsey Rutka and Phil Smith, who own one based in Hartford, Connecticut.
Rutka said he frequently gets calls from people interested in scoping out the Alpha Electro. He’s a firm believer in the future of electric vehicles, both cars and planes. The Lehigh-Lafayette game — the most-played college football rivalry in the nation, dating to 1884 — was a great way to raise awareness about the possibilities, he said.
“I wanted to be able to pass the baton in the next 15 to 20 years when I retire and be part of the revolution by investing into this technology,” Rukta said.
Getting the go-ahead from Rukta and Smith made the logistics easier – their aircraft was the closest to Lafayette. However, the Alpha Electro is designed as a training aircraft with a maximum range of about 80 miles. It’s primarily used to help student pilots earn their wings without traveling too far. The team opted not to push the battery’s limits, requiring the plane to make five stops before reaching Braden Airpark in Forks Township.
Because electric planes are so rare, most airports aren't equipped to charge them. Instead, a ground crew driving Ford F-150 Lightnings paced the aircraft across four states. The electric trucks’ batteries served as mobile chargers for the plane. Overall, 28 people acting as drivers, assistants and a documentary crew supported the Alpha Electro.
Flying an experimental aircraft that far and that low to the ground requires special permission from the FAA. Oktay said officials in Hartford and Allentown were cooperative, but it still took about a week to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Ultimately, the flight went well. Oktay looped over the stadium without any hiccups, while Smith, the co-owner, handled the landing due to the windy conditions.
“Three hundred and fifty hours of work for a 20-minute flight!” Oktay said.
A few hours later the day was complete: Lafayette defeated Lehigh 14-11.