Tampa selected to test electric plane-boat hybrid that can fly 180 mph

The electric seaglider is set to go to market by 2025.
A rendering of Regent's electric seaglider, which will begin testing in Tampa in 2022.
A rendering of Regent's electric seaglider, which will begin testing in Tampa in 2022. [ Courtesy of Regent ]
Published Dec. 16, 2021|Updated Dec. 16, 2021

A company that aims to be the “Boeing of sustainable and coastal travel” will test its aircraft in Tampa Bay.

Regent, a Boston-based aerospace company, announced Thursday it selected Tampa to test its electric seaglider. It’s set to go to market by 2025, chief executive Billy Thalheimer told the Tampa Bay Times, with Tampa being a leading candidate for future routes to other cities along Florida’s west coast.

“Regent is really about enabling connectivity on coastal routes, and simultaneously providing this path for the future where we can decrease our carbon emissions,” Thalheimer said.

So what exactly is a seaglider? Think of it as a hybrid boat and plane.

It rests at docks like a boat and can float in no-wake zones. After leaving a busy harbor, it can take off into the air and fly above the water with speeds up to 180 mph. And it runs on battery power, Thalheimer said.

In the aviation industry, it’s known as a “wing-in-ground effect vehicle.” WIG aircrafts aren’t new, but some are known for having poor wave tolerance and must launch into the sky from a dock, according to Thalheimer. This makes them less ideal for commercial travel.

But Regent’s seaglider will use hydrofoils — or underwater wings — to hover over waves with speeds between 20 to 40 mph before taking off, Thalheimer said.

“They’re not able to be operated in crowded harbors, and so that hydrofoil is really the key to unlock,” he said.

When the Regent team was searching for a site to test the hydrofoil technology, Thalheimer said Tampa Bay checked every box. It offered a large and deep harbor, year-round mild weather, developed dock infrastructure and local leaders willing to help.

A rendering of the electric seaglider.
A rendering of the electric seaglider. [ Courtesy of Regent ]

A small-scale prototype of the seaglider will begin testing early next year. The first seagliders for commercial use will seat about 12 passengers. Regent plans to develop a larger version with room for about 50 to 100 passengers.

Tampa is also a strong candidate to host the seagliders first routes, Thalheimer said.

“We are excited not just to host the testing of the technology demonstrator, but also for our city to be one of the first coastal routes serviced by seagliders in 2025 and beyond,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement.

It’s unclear what it would cost passengers to buy a ticket for a route on a seaglider. Like other airline manufacturers, Regent wouldn’t decide ticket prices, but would sell the aircraft to carriers. Thalheimer said the seaglider will cut costs for carriers because it runs on electricity.

“We would expect that some of the cost savings is certainly passed on and we would expect ticket prices that are much closer to a ferry or a car than an aircraft,” Thalheimer said.

Southern Airways Express, a charter carrier based in Palm Beach, pre-ordered 20 electric seagliders in a $250 million deal, Regent announced earlier this month. Southern Airways Express currently offers scheduled flights from Tampa to Destin, among other locations.

“We not only plan to integrate seagliders into our existing air transportation networks at coastal airports, but also to offer new downtown-to-downtown direct routes along coastal corridors,” Stan Little, CEO of Southern Airways, said in a statement.

Seagliders can fly from Tampa to St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Fort Myers with current battery technology, Thalheimer said. He added that recent advancements in electric car batteries could make routes to Panama City, Key West or even Havana possible in the future.

A trip to Key West would take about an hour and 10 minutes in a seaglider, Thalheimer said.

Tampa Bay is a historic site for commercial aviation. In 1914, the world’s first commercial flight took off from St. Petersburg to Tampa. Castor stated the city wants to continue that tradition.

“It’s amazing that over 100 years later, there is still utility in seaplane-like operations coming out of Tampa,” Thalheimer said. “Except now, instead of crossing the bay, we’re talking about how can we service the entire coast.”