To Infinity and Beyond

In a Tiny Battery-Powered Plane, a Local Pilot Is Shattering World Records in Electric Aviation

Miguel Iturmendi, the founder of Helios Horizon, wants to bring clean aviation to the masses.

By Kim Doleatto January 4, 2024

When Sarasota resident Miguel Iturmendi was a boy, he was fascinated by the world above. NASA's Apollo missions and the 1980s space shuttle program captured his imagination, along with films like Star Wars, Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke, was also credited with conceptualizing the satellite in 1945. Iturmendi went on to become his student after earning a scholarship to attend a graduate program at the International Space University, where Clarke taught. ISU insiders called that particular program the “space mafia,” because its students went on to accomplish impressive things.

Iturmendi is one of them.  

Today, he’s a test pilot, engineer and pioneer in the field of electric aviation, which uses batteries to fly as opposed to jet fuel. And he's shattering aviation world records to prove that battery power is the future of flying. 

“Most people don’t know electric planes exist, and setting firsts is a great way to showcase the technology,” says Iturmendi, 52, who has degrees in aeronautical science, space studies and flight test engineering. “The moment you can break records, you’re proving the transformation is possible.” 

Miguel Iturmendi with the Helios Horizon aircraft.

Image: Javier Merino

He founded Helios Horizon in December of 2021, which is based in Sarasota and led by Iturmendi, project manager Javier Merino and a handful of international engineers and academics who visit from Europe and around the U.S. to help out throughout the year. Some local private donors, like Tina and Mike Willeford of Lakewood Ranch, have helped keep Helios Horizon’s mission going. A website to showcase the company’s projects is in the works, and it recently partnered with nonprofit Space Education Foundation. Thus far, it’s been self-funded and sponsored. 

“There’s no lucrative part of this,” Iturmendi says bluntly. “Four hundred thousand dollars came from me, in cash; a lot of the hardware I already had; and I own the warehouse space. Sometimes there’s product sponsorship, but it’s an academic project first. We spend more than what we get.” 

Iturmendi’s record-breaking flights occur outside of Sarasota, where higher elevation and colder temperatures favor electric aviation, but the Helios Horizon plane is stored in a Sarasota warehouse. It has a carbon-fiber frame and its 88-inch propeller is mounted to the aircraft at the end of a 4-foot mast. The 50-kilowatt electric motor generates about 64 continuous horsepower. As it rises, the plane can reach 90 miles per hour before it hits a fixed cruising speed of 60 miles per hour. The motor is just 8 inches in diameter and four inches thick, weighs 20 pounds and costs roughly $3,000. (For comparison, a combustion motor is 15 times heavier and costs 10 times as much.) The custom-made batteries are worth $18,000 each and require two to six per flight, depending on altitude.  

The takeaway is that electric aviation isn’t only cleaner than fuel-powered aviation, it’s cheaper. But most innovations in the niche industry are led by German, Swiss and French engineers and academics. Iturmendi wants to change that.  

Javier Merino and Miguel Iturmendi in June after the test pilot set an altitude world record of 16,000 feet for electric aircraft weighing less than 500 kilograms.

Making history in the air is nothing new for Iturmendi, who moved to Sarasota in 1998. Originally from Spain, his first job after grad school at Oklahoma State University was piloting an air ambulance to fly organs to hospital operation rooms. In 2016, he was the test pilot for the $260 million Swiss Solar Impulse project, which saw the first solar-powered plane circumnavigate the globe. He’s flown more than 190 types of air vehicles and has been the experimental test pilot on many prototype aircrafts, including SolarStratos, Aurora’s Odysseus, the Honda Jet and the Saab 340 MB-SAR. 

In 2018, Iturmendi co-piloted the Airbus Perlan, a pressurized glider that harnesses the power of wind to travel, reaching 65,000 feet and earning a world record for altitude in a glider. The trip also achieved the fastest known speed of Mach 0.48—roughly half the speed of sound—in a glider over El Calafate, Argentina, which earned him and his team the Society of Flight Test Engineers’ James S. McDonnell Award, as well as a Triple Lennie Pin (an aviation award for soaring). The Perlan glider, which is designed to soar up to 90,000 feet, also passed the Armstrong Line, the point in the atmosphere above which an unprotected human’s blood will boil if an aircraft loses pressurization. 

John Travolta presented the Living Legends of Aviation award to Miguel Iturmendi in 2019.

John Travolta presented the Living Legends of Aviation award to Iturmendi in 2019.

Iturmendi is also the youngest recipient of the Living Legends of Aviation award, which actor John Travolta presented to him at a 2019 ceremony in Austria. And despite his many accolades, he smiles widest when the subject of hate mail from flat earthers comes up in discussion. He gets it in response to the photos he’s taken and shared from his perches in the sky—yes, although there's no service, cell phone cameras still work up there—illustrating the earth’s natural horizon curve and throwing a wrench in their beliefs. 

In June of last year, he set an altitude world record of 16,000 feet for electric aircraft weighing less than 500 kilograms, beating a previous record of 10,000 feet. Powered by two custom electric batteries with Iturmendi behind the yoke, the modified plane took off from the Minden-Tahoe airport and landed a record-breaker after it cruised three miles high over Lake Tahoe. 

It all sounds exhilarating. But Iturmendi says when he’s ensconced in his tiny, solo-passenger Helios aircraft, high in the sky, it’s no joyride. The main risks include being in an unpressurized plane, which Iturmendi mitigates with a custom pressurized suit and helmet. The potential for the plane's batteries to overheat, a common threat in high altitudes, is kept in check with custom-built active cooling systems.  

But Iturmendi doesn’t dwell on risk as much as reward. He says he takes as many precautions as possible and is continuously having Helios Horizon's work peer-reviewed, along with constant engineering checks and tests. “Thanks to the precautions I take, I don’t consider it a huge risk," he says.

A view of the Earth from the Airbus Perlan, which Iturmendi piloted.

How does it feel up there? 

“Once I get to the high point, I might relax just for a second, but then I get into high-stress work mode and just get laser-focused on the task,” he says. “The joy hits when you land back on the ground and you’re OK.”  

The aim of his work, he says, is to prove that fuel-less flying isn’t just a talking point. "The proof is in performance,” he says. “Naysayers claim you can’t go as fast or as far in electric aircraft as you can in traditional aircraft, but we want to show it’s apples to apples.” 

The average, standalone cost of a battery-powered flight is roughly $3.50 for two-and-a-half hours, while a traditional flight for the same amount of time costs roughly $250. That's calculated by taking into account the costs of kilowatts versus traditional fuel. 

The prices, however, don’t include the bigger-picture expenses that come with plane storage, materials, tools and the knowledge and time put toward customizing and perfecting the aircraft, among other things. 

To that end, Iturmendi and the Helios Horizon team are working to raise money that will go toward surpassing an absolute world record for an electric-powered flight: 31,000 feet. Iturmendi himself in 2021 broke an altitude in horizontal flight while flight testing the Solar Impulse. He hopes to take off next month in Minden, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe. 

The Helios Horizon plane at its storage facility in Sarasota.

Another goal of the mission is to educate the next generation of innovators.

Helios Horizon intern Jack Dowd, 21, “helps with anything needed,” says Merino. Dowd is studying aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida and has helped build a custom stand to hold the test motor that’s slated for use on the plane. He’s also working on telemetry data.

In addition to the next flight, more goals in clean flying are on the way for the Helios Horizon team. In spring, the Helios aircraft will get wings that capture solar energy to power the engine to again fly into the stratosphere.

“This is a very special and unique opportunity for Florida, Sarasota and our country,” says Chet Culver, the former governor of Iowa and longtime clean energy advocate and supporter of Helios Horizon, who has a winter home in Sarasota. “We replaced more than half of coal, oil and gas with wind power in Iowa. Now we can move toward another breakthrough in clean energy in our backyard.” 

“Sustainability is, arguably, the most important thing for our future," Culver continues. "We’ll continue to need oil and gas, but if we can supplement those conventional types with renewables, it’s a win-win for everyone."

Iturmendi echoes Culver's sentiments. "The reward is for something bigger than me: transitioning into the electrification of society," he says. "Someone has to do it first. This is just part of who I am.” 

Want to meet the Helios Horizon team? It’s holding a public fundraiser on Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, from 2-5 p.m. at 901 Ponder Ave., Sarasota. For more info, click here, or email [email protected]. 

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