November is shaping up to be a milestone month for innovations in aviation fuel.
Savannah-based Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. announced Monday that it had completed the world’s first trans-Atlantic flight Sunday using only “sustainable” fuel – a little more than a week ahead of a scheduled Virgin Atlantic flight that the British company predicted would achieve the milestone.
Virgin Atlantic, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, revealed in July that, pending regulatory clearance, one of its Boeing 787 Dreamliners powered by alternative fuel would fly Nov. 28 between two of the world’s iconic airports: London’s Heathrow and John F. Kennedy International in New York.
The United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority announced Nov. 6 that it had cleared the way for the flight.
“The 100% sustainable aviation fuel trans-Atlantic flight will be a historic moment in aviation’s roadmap to decarbonization,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said at the time.
Gulfstream, however, charted its own course.
G600 makes 700-mile trans-Atlantic flight on sustainable aviation fuel
The company said it accomplished the milestone with little fanfare Sunday when it flew one of its G600 aircraft nearly 700 miles between Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport and Farnborough Airport, just outside London.
“One of the keys to reaching business aviation’s long-term decarbonization goals is the broad use of (sustainable aviation fuel) in place of fossil-based jet fuel,” Gulfstream President Mark Burns said in a press release announcing the accomplishment. “The completion of this world-class flight helps to advance business aviation’s overarching sustainability mission and create positive environmental impacts for future generations.”
Virgin Atlantic, meanwhile, pivoted slightly when pressed Monday about Gulfstream’s successful test, clarifying that the upcoming London-to-New York trek now will be the the inaugural 100% sustainable aviation flight, or SAF, by “a commercial airline.”
That trip will follow “more than a year of radical cross industry collaboration to demonstrate the capability of SAF as a safe ‘drop-in’ replacement for jet fuel,” Virgin Atlantic spokesperson Grace Peatey said Tuesday in an email response. “We are flying this flight to find long term solutions to the way millions of people fly. The more conversation there is around SAF, the better.”
Cutting emissions by 70%
Gulfstream, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, specializes in high-end jets for companies, plane-sharing services such as NetJets, and high-wealth individuals.
Sunday’s flight was powered using 100% biofuels produced by refining vegetable oils, waste oils or fats – a combination known as “hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids,” or HEFAs.
Virgin Atlantic said it also planned to employ HEFA-based fuel for its cross-ocean flight.
Over its lifecycle, HEFA biofuel is responsible for at least 70% less heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions than fossil-fuel based varieties. Carbon dioxide pollution is the leading man-made contributor to climate change.
The trans-Atlantic flight will help Gulfstream and its key suppliers gauge the effectiveness of biofuel in its aircraft, particularly under cold temperatures for extended flights, the company noted in its announcement.
“Gulfstream continues to break new ground in the sustainable aviation space, and we applaud them for completing this mission as we work to validate the compatibility of our engines with unblended (sustainable aviation fuel),” said Anthony Rossi, vice president of Pratt & Whitney Canada, engine-maker for the G600.
Sustainable fuels higher in cost, but will drop as industry matures
The performance of HEFA is virtually identical to conventional jet fuel but, like other evolving alternative energy sources, still costlier than traditional options.
“We anticipate prices will balance out as the technology matures and producers achieve greater economies of scale,” Gulfstream spokeswoman Angie Amberg said in an email response to questions Monday.
Commercial flights account for about 2% of the nation’s carbon emissions, but that doesn’t include many that are corporately and privately owned.
Still, it’s a market driven by innovation, Amberg added.
“Business aviation, and Gulfstream in particular, has long been a pioneer for the broader aviation community by bringing new technologies to market, such as enhanced situational awareness that improves safety or winglets that improve efficiency,” she said. “Business aviation often leads in investing and adopting innovative technologies before other aviation segments.”
The fuel for Sunday’s flight was produced by Boston-based World Energy and delivered by World Fuel Services, Gulfstream said.
Gulfstream is Georgia’s largest manufacturer, with more than 12,000 employees in Savannah and 350 at an aircraft maintenance center in Brunswick.
The company’s aircraft and other aerospace products ranked as the state’s top export in 2022, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in coastal Georgia. He can be reached at email@example.com.