Ray St-Laurent owns an electric car. And an electric lawn mower. And an electric snowblower.
“Whatever is new and neat” tends to pique the interest of the retired mechanical engineer.
But the electric plane the Fredericton man built by repurposing an electric motorcycle motor is certainly the most unique addition to his electric fleet.
“It’s called an eGull,” said St-Laurent. “And there’s 140 pounds of batteries on there.”
Classified as a “basic ultralight,” the eGull has enough room in the cockpit for St-Laurent and little else.
From behind the flight stick his view is unparalleled, with the windshield on all sides of his body.
WATCH | Ray St-Laurent takes his electric airplane for a short flight over the Mactaquac Dam
It took him a year to build the yellow and purple plane from a kit he brought from Wisconsin.
It’s actually the fourth plane he’s built, but the first one that’s fully electric.
After building a few small planes, the 72-year-old admits he’d gotten a bit too familiar, perhaps even a little bored, with the concept of gasoline-powered flight. The idea of trying to build an electric plane was new and exciting.
But even though it was a kit, he said it was a fight coaxing out all the gremlins.
“The last three months was just getting bugs out,” said St-Laurent. “At least three months.”
The motor comes from a “Zero” motorcycle, a California-based brand of electric motorcycles. Retrofitting it to power a plane came with some challenges.
For example, the engine originally has a tilt sensor that automatically cuts the engine if the motorcycle has tipped over. Not much use in an aircraft, where steeply banking for a turn is a part of a regular flight.
It was one of many frustrating problems that had to be solved.
“There were numerous times I was looking for a chainsaw,” said St-Laurent. “After I flew a bit, more things happened to it. I spent two years getting to a point where I thought ‘OK, now it’s reliable.'”
On the first weekend of June, the eGull made its longest flight yet, traveling from just outside Fredericton to Woodstock and back.
And just like an electric car, “range anxiety,'” the fear of running out of battery power before reaching your destination or the next charging station, is very real.
“Range anxiety squared,” said St-Laurent. “You cannot just coast to the side of the road. You’ve got to coast to a field somewhere.”
Wind conditions and weather play a huge role in how far the eGull can travel.
St-Laurent said he used 80 per cent of his battery power to get to Woodstock. He stopped there to recharge. The trip back only used 40 per cent of his charge.
But he said there’s quite a few benefits to flying electric. Given the current fuel prices, he’s pretty happy about the cost to fly his plane.
He also doesn’t miss the “stink” of traditional fuel, given how close the seat in an ultralight is to its engine. He doesn’t miss the noise and the vibration of a gasoline engine either.
And while the eGull does still make noise as it flies, St-Laurent said it comes from the propeller cutting through the air, not from the engine.
As far as he knows it’s the only electric plane in the area.
“It’s not practical for going anywhere serious,” said St-Laurent. “It’s just a hobby at this point.”