The possibility of the world’s first commercial zero-emissions flights happening in Scotland has edged closer with a new agreement between Loganair and an aircraft designer to deliver hydrogen-electric flights in Orkney in 2027.

Loganair, the UK’s largest regional airline, and Cranfield Aerospace Solutions have signed a Memorandum of Understanding which will see the development of Britten-Norman Islanders to run inter-island routes from Kirkwall to Eday, Stromsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Westray and Papa Westray.

These tiny nine-seater flights deliver what they describe as “lifeline routes” within the islands.

Paul Hutton, CEO of Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, said: “This is an aeroplane that people are very familiar with and that is already used today in the Orkney Islands, but instead of its conventional engines, it will have a zero-emissions, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system. You get the same aeroplane but you get zero CO2.

The project is still currently at prototype stage, but plans are that it will be flight-tested this year, and then certified by the end of 2026, with a view to being ready to go into operation the following year.

The Memorandum of Understanding is the latest stage of Project Fresson, a project part-funded by the UK Government to develop a zero-emissions Britten-Norman Islander. Fresson is named after Captain EE Ted Fresson who operated the first passenger flight between Inverness and Kirkwall 90 years ago, transforming Highlands and Islands travel.

It is also seen as the first step along the way to Loganair’s goal of Net Zero across its entire operations by 2040.

Peter Simpson, executive chairman of Loganair, said: “As an airline, we are doing everything we can to manage and mitigate the environmental impact of flying. Our Greenskies environmental programme, which offsets carbon emissions and invests in future flight technologies, is unique within the industry and our partnership with Cranfield Aerospace Solutions builds on the commitments we have made as part of this.

The Herald: A view of Fairisle from a Loganair planeA view of Fairisle from a Loganair plane

“The short-haul routes we operate in Orkney and the challenging weather conditions we face, make the ideal test bed for hydrogen-electric aircraft, and we are incredibly proud that we could be offering the world’s first commercial zero-emissions flights.”

Andy Smith, head of sustainability at the airline, observed: “By 2040 we expect that there will be zero emissions aircraft designs in all of the categories that we operate –including the 50 and 72 seaters. Potentially we could replace all the aircraft in our fleet.”

“The idea is that from this small aeroplane some of the technology will scale up. There will be lots that we learn starting with these very small aircraft, in terms of safe operations on the ground, how to manage and store hydrogen.”

Whilst designing the aircraft is the key feat, Loganair also has a significant challenge in terms of preparing the hydrogen expertise and production facilities to supply the fuel.

Mr Smith said: “We're going to need to have a hydrogen production and distribution system set up and that has its own completely separate set of regulations and testing that will need to be done.”

Kirkwall is particularly well-placed in terms of potential green hydrogen supply and expertise – with the European Marine Energy Centre’s (EMEC)  ground-breaking tidal energy and hydrogen project nearby at Eday.

“We’re working closely with EMEC,” said Mr Smith. “They’re the ideal people to help us to design and specifiy the ground infrastructure and the protocols that are needed and potentially to supply hydrogen as well."

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The Herald: Cranfield Aerospace Solutions Project Fresson, copyright Cranfield Aerospace

Cranfield Aerospace Solutions is not alone in developing zero-emissions aircraft. Other manufacturers – for instance ZeroAvia and Universal Hydrogen – are also in the race to test and certify, some of them for larger aircraft.

The delivery of zero-emissions flight has not come as quickly as some predicted. For instance, in 2021, it was being predicted that ZeroAvia would be running hydrogen flights between the UK and Netherlands by 2024. 

This is in part, Mrs Smith said, due to the regulatory challenges.

“Because this is a completely new propulsion system for commercial aviation there's a lot of behind-the-scenes barriers, not necessarily technical ones, but regulatory ones. So some of it is outside the manufacturer's control in that they need the regulatory authorities to review. This is just the reality of doing something completely new."

“One of the virtues," said Mr Smith, "of the Cranfield aerospace aircraft, is that it is quite simple. It does seem to be quite feasible that this could be the first to fly commercial passengers."

The Britten-Norman Islander, Mr Hutton said, was chosen very carefully. “It’s the perfect first-step aeroplane for getting these technologies and fuel cells, electric motors into service. 

"But it also has virtues from a commercial aspect, in that it's used for short hop flights. So you don't need to give it a three or four-hour range to make it commercially viable. Over 85% of its operational use today, or around the world is for flights of 60 minutes or less. Choosing an aeroplane doesn't overstretch the maturity of the technologies he tried to body is a clever first step – it gives us a much higher confidence level that we can get it operational safely."

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Once Cranfield Aerospace Solutions has completed Project Fresson, it plans to move on to larger aeroplanes.

Mr Hutton observed: “The Islander is very much a means to an end. The hard step is the first step to prove you can do it and to prove you can do it safely. Once you can do that on a smaller aeroplane, you can then look to scale it up. Already the system we've designed is designed to be modular.”

Project Fresson, with its tiny Britten -Norman Islander, will not make a huge dent on UK aviation emissions when it gets up and running, but it is, said Mr Smith, the start of a bigger process that will.

“What we’re doing with the Islander," he said, "is to prove and mature the technology and the operating processes – so that it will scale up to larger aircraft, and that is where that starts to have a bigger and bigger impact on overall aviation emissions."

Orkney, Mr Smith said, is an ideal place for the start of this revolution. “It’s an excellent fit with how forward-minded the communities are in terms of environmental impacts."