News / Canada

Ontario man flying high with world's first hemp plane

Derek Kesek plans to be flying high in the world’s first hemp plane next year.

At first, people laughed when the Burlington, Ont., former organic restaurant owner said he was going to build a plane made out of hemp.

“Can you smoke it, too?” they jibed.

“But, they’re not laughing at me now,” the environmental activist told Torstar News Service this week.

Last month his Waterloo-based company, Hempearth, signed a contract with a Florida-based plane manufacturer to build an aircraft made almost entirely out of hemp.

A member of the cannabis plant family, hemp is a tall, leafy plant with a strong fibrous stalk. It is used to make T-shirts, soap, rope, oil, food, construction materials and now, planes.

Kesek believes his hemp plane could revolutionize the world — “just like Steve Jobs did with his phones.”

Because hemp is a sustainable crop that needs no pesticides or herbicides to grow, the plane would have a carbon footprint significantly smaller than that of standard planes, he said.

“We are building this essentially from weeds from the garden. When nickel and other elements are taken, they can’t be put back.”

At least 75 per cent of Kesek’s plane — including its wings, seats, pillows and outer shell — will be made from hemp, instead of fibreglass.

The four-seater jet will be the colour of natural hemp fibre, with a wingspan of 36 feet (12 metres).

If the plane meets aviation regulations, it will — fittingly — run on hemp biofuel, Kesek said.

“Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that, you’re not going to be able to do that.’ I just said, ‘Watch me,’ ” Kesek said.

“No one thought it would be possible, and all those people who were naysayers are now coming on board.”

Health Canada legalized the growth of industrial hemp in the late 1990s, but in some U.S. states it is still illegal to grow the cannabis plant.

Hemp is often linked to its close chemical cousin, marijuana, and Kesek felt the need to clarify that no one would be smoking pot while building or flying the plane.

“My company is not about marijuana; it is about industrial hemp. I keep it really clean; we are almost like the Coca-Cola of hemp and I’m like the Richard Branson of the brand,” he said.

Sir Richard Branson, one of Britain’s most high-profile billionaire investors, has been an inspiration to Kesek, who shared some other hemp-related pipe dreams with Torstar.

“I want to build a spaceship and be up next to Richard Branson in space with hemp,” he said.

All going to plan, Kesek’s first hemp project will be taking off next year, launching from Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the world’s first successful aircraft flight took place.

Velocity Inc., the U.S. company contracted to build the hemp plane, gave the project a price tag of $500,000, chief executive Duane Swing told Torstar.

The company tested the strength and durability of woven hemp material before committing to the proposal by making two identical foot-long planks, one made from hemp and one from fibreglass.

An employee then tried to break the planks to see which was stronger and found hemp was in most cases equal to or better than fibreglass, Swing said.

“As long as we can prove that hemp is as strong as fibreglass, then we can push forward with the project.”

Velocity Inc. was waiting on confirmation from Hempearth that the project has the necessary funding before starting to build the plane, Swing said.

Kesek aims to get at least 30 per cent of the plane privately funded before turning to crowdfunding on the Internet.

Hempearth was registered earlier this year with the sole purpose of supporting the hemp industry, Kesek said.

He hoped the plane would raise awareness about hemp and its potential benefits on the environment.