A flight powered by cooking oil has taken place in the U.K. for the first time. You might expect such an announcement would be followed by a picture of an ultralight plane or some experimental unit that is about as far from a commercial possibility as it is possible to get and still fly. However, you would be wrong and the picture at the beginning of this blog shows that: It was the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) equivalent to an AIRBUS A330, which is the currently a stalwart of many airlines. Now that the Boeing 747 is almost retired, it is one of the biggest commercial jets out there.

     Powered by cooking oil? You’ve to be kidding! But, yes, it’s true.

     The RAF Voyager, the military equivalent of an Airbus A330, took off and landed from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire just over a week ago. The RAF hopes sustainable aviation fuels will help it reach net-zero emissions by 2040 and reduce its reliance on global supply chains. U.K. Defence Minister Baroness Goldie said it was “a breakthrough moment”.

     The 90-minute flight over Oxfordshire was also the first time a military aircraft of such size has used a fully sustainable fuel.

     The fuel was supplied by AirBP and the plane was flown by a combined RAF, Rolls-Royce, and Airbus flight test crew. The flight also replicated an air-to-air refueling operation during its test flight. The RAF said waste-based fuels could reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%. They added that the Voyager flight showed the potential for the fuel’s future operational capability, ensuring the RAF’s ability to contribute to U.K. defence wherever and whenever required.

     Test pilot Jesus Ruiz said he had been a “small part” in a “huge step for sustainable aviation”.

Baroness Goldie said: “They should be rightly proud of this achievement – it is an exciting development for the Ministry of Defence.” She said the RAF’s “pioneering spirit” showed that British science and engineering was “leading the way” in a “climate-changed world”.

     Air Chief Marshal Sir Mike Wigston said: “The way we power our aircraft will be key to meeting the net-zero challenge, and the RAF is already thinking about how we will operate beyond fossil fuels. He described the flight as an “important milestone” and “another technological first for the RAF alongside our industry partners”.

     Carrie Harris, director of sustainability at British Airways, which provided one of the test pilots, said the trial was a “step closer towards fueling commercial flights” in the same way.

Baroness Vere, aviation minister at the Department for Transport (DfT), called it a “win for the planet and a testament to British ingenuity”. She added that the DfT had launched a £165m fund to boost the sustainable fuel industry ahead of the first net-zero transatlantic flight next year.

     Louise Donaghey, Services Programmes director at Rolls-Royce, told the BBC the company was aiming to have all its Trent aircraft engines capable of using sustainable fuels by the end of 2023.

     This announcement is not only significant because the fuel used is sustainable in terms of emissions and, presumably a lower cost in the long run, but because the test was conducted with all potential future players involved: The pilots came from British Airways, Airbus, and the RAF; the fuel was supplied by a major international oil company; the engine manufacturer modified their main commercial engines to make them work with cooking oil; AND the RAF was willing to commit a multi-million dollar aircraft to the experiment.

     I don’t imagine they actually used re-cycled cooking oil from McDonalds, but the fact that they used cooking oil of any sort, and it worked, is an amazing achievement. It is a reminder that human ingenuity, when focused, can actually achieve what seem to be miracles. Long may that focus be cultivated….for the survival of the human race on our planet, if nothing else.

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