Los Angeles startup wants hydrogen to power next generation of carbon-free jet travel

Beyond a splashy paint job that included a big “H” on the tail, the 40-passenger turboprop jet that took off mid-morning March 2, from a small airport in central Washington, looked like any other regional airliner.

But with that 15-minute demonstration flight, with two test pilots and one flight crew member onboard, a three-year-old startup in Hawthorne made history while providing a glimpse of a potential future with quieter, carbon-free air travel.

Universal Hydrogen, which counts Harrison Ford as a hangar neighbor at Hawthorne Municipal Airport, replaced the jet’s right turbine engine with a 1-megawatt powertrain fueled entirely by a hydrogen fuel cell. Fuel cells operate similarly to electric batteries but are much lighter, which is key for flight. And rather than needing to be recharged, fuel cells are fed energy-rich hydrogen gas to generate electricity, emitting only water vapor along the way.