Maiden flight for pioneering project which delivers medical supplies across world

NUNCATS 'electric sky jeep' takes off at Old Buckenham Airfield for its maiden flight. Credit: NUNCATS

A pioneering aviation project, which hopes to improve healthcare and save lives in some of the most remote parts of the world, is a step closer to take-off after taking its maiden flight.

NUNCATS, based in Norfolk, is in the process of developing the 'electric sky jeep', to provide cheap and sustainable transport to deliver supplies to teachers and doctors in remote parts of the world.

The Old Buckenham-based firm plans to work with charities and non-government organisations (NGOs) to set up a network of solar-powered energy grids on buildings in remote towns and villages so that the aircraft can fly between them delivering vital medical aid and attention.

The 'electric sky jeep', based on a Zenith CH750, has been under construction for the past three years but on Friday 20 January successfully took to the air at Old Buckenham Airfield, in south Norfolk.

The test flight is a significant step forward for the project and means any tweaks can now be made to speed up the production process, step up the trials and eventually see the plane take to the skies in life-saving missions.

The Community Interest Company (CIC), which has partnered with US Zenith Aircraft Company and several start-up investors, is the brainchild of Shipdham-based husband and wife Tim and Helen Bridge, who founded the company in 2019 and began the work during the covid lockdowns three years ago.

They have taken a light-aircraft and replaced the petrol engine and fuel tanks with an electric one with batteries, supported by solar charging stations on the ground. Both the aircraft and the solar system are based at Old Buckenham.

Mr Bridge said: "Nobody else is building electric aircraft in this way.

"Our aim is to provide a low-cost, rugged and practical aircraft for use in rural and hard-to-reach communities, such as medics in Uganda and doctors in rural India.

"We knew it would work, the aircraft is a reliable one, but it’s great to actually see it in action.

"Now we have done that our next stage is to find the money to fund another plane and replicate this so we can get this out into the testing environment and go from there.

"As soon as funding allows, we hope to move towards getting this into communities, where it can make a real difference.

"There are currently a billion people in the world with no access to healthcare, 20,000 people will die because of that just today.

"This can be a genuine life-saver."

The test flight was piloted by Captain Tim Kingsley, a pilot at Norwich-based air charter company SaxonAir, which is backing the project.

Captain Kingsley said afterwards: "I’m very happy with how today went. It was cold out there, there was a bit of crosswind, but everything went really well.

"I’m delighted to be involved in this project and although it is still at its very early stages the vision is a really exciting one. There’s nothing like this anywhere else in the world.

"I’ve seen first-hand the challenges some of these communities face and harnessing natural energy in such a way could make a real difference to so many people’s lives."

Last year NUNCATS teamed-up with SaxonAir, the International Aviation Academy Norwich, Action Community Enterprises (ACE), East Coast College and Vattenfall to give young people aged 14 to 25 the opportunity to start building one of the aircraft at a free aviation summer school.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has committed to further funding of the summer school and it is hoped the aircraft being constructed will become the second flight-ready 'sky jeep'.

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