By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis

Lafayette student Remy Oktay '24 and co-pilot in the cockpit of the all-electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane

Remy Oktay ’24 in the cockpit of the fully electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane with pilot and plane owner, Phillip Smith

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced virtually everyone indoors in 2020, many used the period of confinement as an opportunity to take up a new hobby. Remy Oktay ’24 chose to take his pursuits to new heights: He decided to get his pilot’s license, a dream born out of his childhood days spent flying with his grandparents in their four-seater Cessna. Not only did the engineering studies and environmental studies double-major become a licensed pilot in 2020 after 12 weeks of intensive training, but now Oktay is using his newfound talent to do something unprecedented. At the 2022 Lafayette vs. Lehigh football game Nov. 19, the 158th meeting of college football’s most-played rivalry, Oktay will fly what is presumed to be the first electric plane flyover of a sporting event. The flight—as well as a weeklong series of student-run events leading up to it, dubbed “Lafayette Gets Electric”—he explains, would not have been possible had it not been for the support of Lafayette’s accessible and intricately interconnected network of alumni, faculty, staff, administration, and students.

“None of this would have happened if I wasn’t a student at Lafayette College,” Oktay says. “The access to resources and the close-knit community that we have here allows ideas like this to get passed around, brainstormed, be worked on as a team, and get buy-in. The belief that the College has in students, that we can do awesome things if we’re given the opportunity, is what made this happen.”

Read on to learn more about Saturday’s groundbreaking event—and the people who helped Oktay make his larger-than-life vision a reality.

“Lafayette Gets Electric”

To make the flyover happen, Oktay collaborated with Lafayette alumni representing Textron eAviation (manufacturer of the fully electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane he’ll be flying over the Rivalry game) as well as Ford Motor Co. (whose electric F150 Lightning trucks will provide the electric charge to take the plane aloft). To kick off the week of festivities preceding the main event, Oktay and a crew of 25 Lafayette students, parents, and alumni volunteers as well as pilots transported the Alpha Electro (which is only one of 12 of its kind in the country) from its home base at Hartford-Brainard Airport in Hartford, Conn., to Braden Airpark in Easton, Pa. Along its flight to Easton on Nov. 13, the plane made stops at five airports to be recharged by the batteries of four Ford F150 Lightning pickup trucks that followed the plane, along with three Teslas on the ground and two chase aircraft in the air for filming. This journey and method of recharging also marked another world first in electric aviation. Now at Braden Airpark, the revolutionary aircraft will be on display Nov. 17-18 for Lafayette classes, groups, students, faculty, and staff to visit before Oktay takes to the air and marks yet another milestone in the future of aviation.

Wide-angle shot of Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane flying in the air

Fully electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane in flight

Lafayette’s engineering motorsports team and Dyer Center fellows are coordinating a pregame sustainability tailgate, located on the top level of Lafayette’s Markle Parking Deck, to demonstrate the Formula SAE electric vehicle students are building and provide an opportunity for students and faculty to share their research. Representatives from Ford, Textron, and the Lehigh Valley chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby also will be in attendance at the tailgate, which will take place Nov. 19 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The tailgate will present an opportunity for Lafayette and Easton community members to network, learn about electric vehicles, and get involved with sustainability efforts on campus. Ford F150 Lightning pickup trucks also will be on display there, powering televisions, pancake griddles, coffee makers, and other fun items for visitors to enjoy.

Close-up shot of Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane being charged by a Ford F150 Lightning pickup truck via charging cable

Ford F150 Lightning pickup trucks were used to charge the Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane along its journey from Connecticut to Pennsylvania, and will be on display at the sustainability tailgate prior to the Nov. 19 Lafayette-Lehigh Rivalry football game

The grand finale of “Lafayette Gets Electric” will, of course, be the Alpha Electro flying over the Rivalry game directly after the national anthem. The plane will be flown by Oktay and the aircraft’s owner, Phillip Smith.

“The goal is to raise awareness of electric planes and other hybrid/electric vehicles, and the benefits of green aviation,” Oktay says. “Greater exposure garners more interest, and the rate at which these technologies are developed and adopted accelerates. And, because many students in the Engineering Division are excited to learn more about this field, we are also hoping to continue these relationships we’ve built with Ford and Textron eAviation through this project, and build new relationships with others who might be interested in engaging with students after this event.”

It takes a village: Lafayette community rallies to lift Oktay’s plans off the ground

At the outset, Oktay knew that in order to successfully plan an event of this magnitude, he would need the approval and partnership of various Lafayette community members on campus and beyond. But what he didn’t foresee was the staggering number of the College’s administration, alumni, faculty, staff, and students who would not only get behind him, but also contribute to the project in ways that brought it to the next level. 

“Lafayette is a leader in undergraduate education, and I don’t think there are other places like Lafayette that would foster the connections that this project required to pull off,” says Lauren Anderson ’04, William Jeffers Director of Engineering, James T. Marcus ’50 Scholar, and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lafayette. “It’s a place where you can easily move outside your comfort zone, because you can find people—no matter where you are on or off campus—who are willing to connect with you and support you. There is something incredible about the fact that a student here can talk with their department head all the way up to the president to make something like this happen.” 

President Nicole Farmer Hurd was one of the first to show enthusiasm for Oktay’s flyover idea and help put it into action. “In a meeting with President Hurd about other projects this summer, I asked her what she thought about it. She said, ‘That sounds cool.’ So, I put together a two-page pitch, presented it to her, and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’ President Hurd’s belief in students was incredibly evident; I didn’t have to jump through hoops. That first pitch happened 10 weeks ago; if this was a larger school, it probably would have taken that amount of time just to put it in front of the president for approval, and this event wouldn’t have happened.” In addition to giving Oktay the green light and helping him secure the necessary funding, President Hurd met with Oktay biweekly throughout the fall semester to provide mentorship as he engaged with executives and assembled the team to carry out the flyover.

Anderson also was a key player in the execution of Oktay’s plan: As the head of the Engineering Division, she helped iron out the logistics of the flyover, provided divisional support and resources, coached Oktay in cultivating relationships with the alumni and companies involved, and introduced him to other departments and campus community members who could help further his cause. “The project was easy to get behind,” Anderson says. “Remy is incredibly passionate about what he does, and he is incredibly kind. And I want to stress that, because it’s important when you’re asking for big things that you’re grounded and respectful, and you recognize what it is you’re asking for when you ask people to come along on that journey with you. What I have enjoyed the most is watching Remy take even the smallest pieces of information I provided—things that didn’t seem all that relevant on their own—and fit them together to create something so big. All these little things have added up. I am his advocate. That’s my role, and I’m so happy to be a part of his journey.”

The other most remarkable aspects of this experience, Anderson explains, were the coincidental alumni connections to the project that, she says, seemed to “fall out of the sky.” The deeper Oktay delved into his initial research for the project, the more alumni he happened across in the aviation, automotive, and other industries who were happy to back him. “Lafayette alumni have come from all levels of these companies, from leadership roles to the engineers on the ground, to make this event happen,” Anderson says. “The Lafayette student experience and what we do here sticks with you long after you leave, and all an alum needs is someone like Remy to call you up and ask if you want to get on board with their idea. It’s that easy. And that speaks to the power of the Lafayette community.” 

Fletcher Thomson ’98, vice president of Rhode Island-based Textron eAviation, manufacturer of the Alpha Electro, has been instrumental in making the flyover a reality. Ford Motor Co.’s Keith Oglesby ’92, manager of electrified powertrain systems, and Brian Mansfield ’92, a product development engineer, were both involved with the design of the Ford F150 Lightning and are key supporters of “Lafayette Gets Electric.” Rob Welsch ’90, sales representative for Cusick Sales, secured sponsorship for the project from Meltric, providing high-power plugs for charging the plane. Jeff Acopian ’75 and Alex Karapetian ’04, vice president and president of Acopian Technical Co., respectively, also helped facilitate Oktay’s relationships with alumni and provided on-the-ground support with tasks such as transporting three specialized charging cables—which were specifically designed to connect the electric plane to the F150 Lightning battery—from Lafayette to Hartford in preparation for the plane’s trip to Easton. 

And speaking of the specialized charging cables: Being that nothing like them exists in the world, all three were voluntarily designed and built from scratch by Adam Smith, electronics systems and robotics laboratory specialist at Lafayette College. “You can’t buy those cables,” Oktay says. “Thanks to Robert’s help with the sponsorship, Meltric gave us the parts, and Adam assembled them. He has been incredibly helpful for this project, because he’s literally built the bridge between the Alpha Electro and the F150 Lightning trucks that will charge the plane, which made this all possible.”

Close-up shot of Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane being charged by a Ford F150 Lightning pickup truck via charging cable

Ford F150 Lightning pickup truck charging the Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane via specialized charging cables built by Adam Smith, electronics systems and robotics laboratory specialist at Lafayette College

“I found this project particularly exciting as someone who follows electric vehicle technology and has an interest in new advances in aviation,” Smith adds. “It is significant that we have students who are willing and eager to pursue these lofty projects. We want the best for our students, and we will always do what we can to support their academic goals. I am excited to witness the flight, and I am fortunate to have been able to contribute some small part in it.”

Current Lafayette students Kevin Durfee ’23, Zach Fiske ’23, Rachel Hurley ’23, and Trebor Maitin ’24 also have been working closely with Oktay to organize the student teams for the “Lafayette Gets Electric” events. 

Oktay says that the aforementioned contributors to the flyover are “just scratching the surface of the alumni, faculty, staff, and students who have helped make this all happen. It was mind-boggling how well things worked out and how connected the Lafayette community was to all the players of this project.” Other Lafayette community members Oktay would like to thank for their support include:

  • Larry Malinconico, associate professor of geology/geophysics who also is a pilot, for assisting with securing Braden Airpark’s sponsorship of the flyover
  • Tobias Rossmann, associate professor of mechanical engineering and Dyer Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship adviser, for utilizing the project as a case study to teach D.Y.E.R. fellows about venture-building concepts, guiding Oktay through interactions with business executives, and helping with the engineering of the plane’s charging cables
  • Jolene Cardassi, administrative coordinator of the Dyer Center, who helped facilitate communications between Oktay and other Lafayette community members
  • Marty Johnson, innovator in residence at the Dyer Center, who assisted Oktay with writing his pitch to, and ultimately connecting with, Ford executives
  • Christopher Ruebeck, associate professor of economics, who helped flesh out details of the pregame tailgate and contributed to it becoming a space where community members could learn about decarbonization
  • Kathleen Parrish, visiting instructor of English, for supporting Oktay during the process of writing the press release for the event and coaching him on navigating press interviews
  • Ernest Nkansah-Dwamena, assistant professor of environmental studies, for providing consultation from an environmental policy standpoint 
  • Lisa Karam, Engineering Division coordinator, for helping to plan logistics and engineering resources for the sustainability tailgate
  • Ellen Leslie, executive assistant to the president, who worked on all the funding and planning logistics through the President’s Office
  • Ben Landis, director of development and donor engagement initiatives, who helped Oktay connect with numerous alumni through Development Office resources
  • Kim Spang, vice president of development and college relations, for helping to welcome all alumni involved with the project back to campus
  • Office of Sustainability, ID Office, Facilities Operations, Finance and Business Services, Film and Media Studies, Athletics, Biology Department, and Skillman Library for assisting with various aspects of the “Lafayette Gets Electric”

Anderson believes that the positive networks, relationships, and experiences that have come out of this project will reverberate through generations of Lafayette students to come. “The benefits are tremendous,” she says. “Students have the opportunity to build relationships with the various alumni we’ve connected with through this project—whether it’s potential internships, class seminars, or advising. Not only has this event shined a light on the student-faculty and alumni relationships that are possible at Lafayette, but they also elevate the campus as a whole and bring out what’s unique and special about the College. Students here can pursue their passions and take them wherever they want to go.”

Lafayette student Remy Oktay '24 in the cockpit of the all-electric Pipistrel Alpha Electro plane

Remy Oktay ’24 will be flying what is presumed to be the first electric plane flyover of a sporting event at the 2022 Lafayette-Lehigh Rivalry game on Nov. 19

As he prepares to take to the skies this Saturday, Oktay has one message he’d like to share with current and prospective Lafayette students: “If you have crazy ideas that you think could never happen, just talk to people about them, and start building that energy. Explore the resources we have here on campus. This project showed me how supportive our community is, and how the people here want to make things happen. It’s a very cool space to be in.”

Alumni Giving

Bring the Roar

If you are a Lafayette alum who would like to support students, there are many opportunities through Bring the Roar, Lafayette’s annual fundraising initiative leading up to the Rivalry game.

Learn more
Categorized in: Alumni, Campus life, Class of 2024, Community, Community Impact, Dyer Center, Engineering, Engineering Studies, Environmental Studies, Faculty and Staff, Featured News, Innovation and Research, Interdisciplinary, Landis Center, News and Features, Social Hub, Students, Sustainability

1 Comment

  1. Tammy says:

    Remy is a rock star. So exciting!

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