Universal Hydrogen’s Lightning McClean completes first flight on hydrogen


Universal Hydrogen’s 40-passenger regional airliner, nicknamed Lightning McClean, has completed its maiden flight using hydrogen fuel cell propulsion.

The aircraft took off yesterday morning from Grant County International Airport and flew for 15 minutes, reaching an altitude of 3,500 MSL. The flight, conducted under an FAA Special Airworthiness Certificate, was the first in a two-year flight test campaign. After expected culmination in 2025, Universal plans to enter ATR 72 regional aircraft converted to run on hydrogen into passenger service. 

Paul Eremenko, co-founder and CEO of Universal Hydrogen, said: “Our business model resolves the chicken-and-egg problem between hydrogen airplanes and hydrogen infrastructure by developing both in parallel and with a uniquely low-cost approach. The airplanes are converted to hydrogen using an aftermarket retrofit conversion kit, tackling the existing fleet rather than developing a brand new airplane. And hydrogen fuelling uses modular capsules compatible with existing freight networks and airport cargo handling equipment, making every airport in the world hydrogen-ready.”

Representatives from Connect Airlines and Amelia, the US and European launch customers for the aircraft, respectively, were on hand to witness the historic flight. The company has an order book totalling 247 aircraft conversions from 16 customers worldwide, amounting to over $1bn in conversions backlog and over $2bn in fuel services over the first 10 years of operation.

John Thomas, CEO of Connect Airlines, said: “Today will go down in the history books as the true start to the decarbonisation of the global airline industry and we at Connect Airlines are extremely proud of the role that we, as the first US operator, will play in leading the way with Universal Hydrogen.”

Connect, which will begin regional turboprop service this spring, has placed a first-position US order with Universal Hydrogen to convert 75 ATR 72-600 regional airplanes to hydrogen powertrains with purchase rights for 25 additional aircraft conversions. “We have committed to being North America’s first zero-emission airline and this historic flight, taking hydrogen, which can be made with nothing but sunshine and emitting only water, is a key milestone on our journey,” added Thomas.

In this first test flight, one of the aircraft’s turbine engines was replaced with Universal Hydrogen’s fuel cell-electric, megawatt-class powertrain. The other remained a conventional engine for safety of flight. The flight was piloted by Alex Kroll, a former US Air Force test pilot and the Universal’s chief test pilot. “During the second circuit over the airport, we were comfortable with the performance of the hydrogen powertrain, so we were able to throttle back the fossil fuel turbine engine to demonstrate cruise principally on hydrogen power,” said Kroll. “The airplane handled beautifully, and the noise and vibrations from the fuel cell powertrain are significantly lower than from the conventional turbine engine.”

The flight comes on the back of demonstrations in December last year of the firm’s modular hydrogen logistics system. 

“More than half of aviation CO2 emissions today come from the A320 and 737 family of aircraft,” added Eremenko. “Both Airbus and Boeing will need to replace these venerable airplanes with a new design starting development in the late-2020s and entering passenger service in the mid-2030s. Making their successors hydrogen airplanes is a golden opportunity – perhaps the only opportunity – for aviation to get anywhere near meeting Paris Agreement emissions targets without having to curb aviation traffic volumes.”