In 2018, Danielle McLean was studying for her Master’s degree while working as an aerospace engineer at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas. During a class about sustainable aviation, she had an epiphany.
“I learned about electric vertical take-off and landing [eVTOL] vehicles. We studied hydrogen, and the feasibility of its use in aviation,” McLean says. “This was everything that I believed in, converging into this really cool technology.”
She became obsessed with emissions-free flight – particularly with hydrogen propulsion – and dropped everything to pursue this sudden new-found passion.
“I quit my Master’s, I quit my job and started my own company. I was reading papers every night, it was getting to a point where I was advising my advisors. I thought, ‘We can totally do this hydrogen thing’, and we did.”
She called her company “Happy Takeoff”. The firm retrofitted a large drone, and flew it on hydrogen power.
“One of the biggest challenges that we had, funnily enough, was not the actual flight itself, but accessing hydrogen,” she says. “It was very difficult to find hydrogen, we had to travel hours to get a couple of tanks. So it was extremely inefficient.”
Through Happy Takeoff, she met others who shared her thirst for knowledge in making hydrogen fuel-cell-powered air vehicles viable. The group’s members met regularly online and conducted educational webinars to learn from each other. They morphed into the “H2eVTOL Council” under the auspices of the Vertical Flight Society (VFS). McLean eventually became its chair, and VFS’s hydrogen advisor.
“There were five of us when we started in 2020. Within a few months, we had 100 people. Now, three years later, we’ve got 400 people in that group,” McLean says. The Council was spun off from the VFS to form the non-profit HySky Society, with VFS remaining a strategic partner.
“Our mission is to advance hydrogen aviation across North America,” she says. “We really see a need for that. There was just no organisation dedicated to that in the US. We’ve been watching other countries, especially in Europe, become competitive in the hydrogen aviation space, and they are much farther ahead. We want to learn from them.”
The group is now planning what it bills “the world’s largest hydrogen aviation event”, set to take place virtually, in June. McLean is hoping for 1,000 participants.
But her passion for building a more environmentally-friendly way to power flight runs much deeper. Studying engineering ethics at university – and an ensuing aviation disaster – made a profound impression on her and her classmates.
“The conclusion we all came to on our own… was that every catastrophic disaster that has come from something man-made was a result of leadership not listening to engineers.
“In your career you will encounter business executives that are going to say: ‘That’s too expensive. That won’t work. We don’t have time. That will take too long.’ But never, never waver from your ethics, because people could die,” McLean adds. “That stuck with me.”
And then two Boeing 737 Max aircraft – whose fuselages came from the company she worked for in Wichita – crashed, killing all 346 people on board.
“When the 737 Maxes crashed, I just kept thinking about that,” she says.
Like building a new aircraft, tackling climate change is also an engineering challenge that must be mastered. Environmental concerns and the ethics of engineering and safety are the two issues that drive her today.
“And it being too expensive, or taking too long just isn’t… a good enough answer.”
Once she jumped into sustainable aviation, McLean found that large aerospace companies, which may have the resources and staff to develop, fund and test these kinds of new technologies, were reluctant to engage. The risk for them, she says, may just be too high.
“It’s really hard for a legacy company that’s so big like Boeing to pivot from what makes them Boeing. They have so much inertia towards what they’re doing well – which is dominating the aviation industry with their aircraft – that it is hard to make the business case for them to invest in hydrogen or electric or whatever. It would be disrupting their own business.” So, she adds, it is up to small, scrappy, agile players to push the envelope on this technology.
She cites one more reason why she decided to spearhead innovation in a promising new slice of the industry.
“At university, I was always the only girl in my labs. For a long time, I always felt like I was playing catch-up. The boys had this foundational knowledge and language that I just didn’t have. I only knew the technical terms for things, and not the slang. It was scary and super-uncomfortable. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play with my dad’s tools, in the garage, even though I wanted to. I was raised with dolls and kitchen sets, and my brothers were raised with tools and guns and army guys.
“But the eVTOL space was all new to all of us. It was a level playing field. We were all asking the same questions, and we all were sharing the same information. So that’s another beautiful thing that’s happening right now.
“I was in my element. Finally,” McLean says.
The lesson she learned? Always look forward.
“I’m not focusing my energy on trying to change the old any more, let’s just build the new. Let’s just do it ourselves.”