First flight: Two Air Force pilots in an electric Beta plane

Last week, on the morning of Wednesday, March 9, a 50-foot wingspan electric plane called Alia took off from Plattsburgh, New York. The plane, powered by two engines driving a propeller at the rear, flew for about an hour. Later that day he flew again. The Alia plane is an experimental flying machine that produces zero emissions into the air, and it’s made by a Vermont-based company called Beta Technologies. What made these flights remarkable was that for the first time for this company and others in an Air Force program called Agility Prime, at the controls and on board the aircraft were Airmen from the ‘Air Force who both have long histories as test pilots.

Beta is not the only company working on electric planes: several others are too, such as Joby, Kitty Hawk, Wisk and Archer. These startups and others are building planes that can take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, and then fly like typical planes, powered by batteries, motors, and propellers in different configurations. The industry term for these new experimental flying machines is eVTOL, for electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

Beta and a number of other space companies are also part of an Air Force program called Agility Prime, an initiative that aims to help expedite the work these companies are doing; it also gives the Air Force insight into the possible uses of these new aircraft types for the military. “It allows us to take a look at these early prototypes from all companies and say, ‘Is there a military use case? also carries the call sign “Hog” and one of the pilots who flew Alia last week.

George “Hog” Griffiths, one of the Air Force test pilots, is on the left. Brian Jenkins/BETA Technologies

The flights by Griffiths and another Air Force aviator were notable for being the first time Air Force pilots had flown an electric aircraft as part of the Agility Prime program while on board – previously , an Air Force Reserve pilot was flying an electric plane different from Kitty Hawk. , but did so remotely, while on the ground.

[Related: The Air Force wants to modernize air refueling, but it’s been a bumpy ride]

For Beta last week, the first flight of the day saw Major Jonathan Appleby at the controls, who also had an instructor pilot seated to his left in the cockpit. “Driving it was very unique,” ​​he recalls. One of the main reasons for this is the way the controls are laid out: a control stick was positioned to his right, which allowed him to command the plane to move its nose up or down, or to tilt from side to side. Interestingly, this stick also allows pilots to twist it to rotate the plane left or right. Other planes do it with rudder pedals. To his left was a wheel he could operate with his thumb to control the thrust provided by the propeller aft. “Imagine a spinning donut,” he says. Adjusting this donut allows the rider to control the amount of torque provided by the motors.

Another key sensory difference was that it was not noisy in the same way as an aircraft like a 737 with traditional engines. “You hear some of the aerodynamic aspects of the wind hitting the windshield, or even the lifter [propeller] make noise, but it’s a very soft hum behind you,” Appleby says. “I would say it’s a bit like sailing, compared to using a big motorboat.”

Griffiths, the other Air Force test pilot, says his experience in the electric plane was similar to Appleby’s. “If you’ve driven an electric car, or even a golf cart on a golf course, as soon as you hit that pedal, you get instant torque,” he says. “Exactly the same when we press this wheel, we can go from zero to 100% instant power.”

The Air Force has just passed the milestone of an electric plane
Griffiths in a simulator, with the aircraft’s control stick in his right hand. Brian Jenkins/BETA Technologies

While these air mobility companies, including Beta, focus on making planes that don’t need to take off by accelerating down a runway to get airborne, the specific experimental plane that Appleby and Griffiths operated last week was actually configured more like a traditional aircraft than an eVTOL. That’s because this plane didn’t have extra propellers mounted on it to pull it vertically through the air or help it land that way. Instead, it was driven only by a rear pusher propeller, and took off and landed like a regular, albeit experimental, electric aircraft.

Griffiths ponders possible uses for a plane like this for the Department of Defense. “Maybe it’s as simple as moving goods from one base to another,” he wonders. “Or is there a military mission we can do? Maybe he’s in orbit [in the sky] somewhere, with some kind of sensor module that we can actually mount on the plane. The goal, when considering uses like this, is to have the government’s eyes on the prototypes, he says, instead of just asking individual companies to report on their progress.

The Air Force has just passed the milestone of an electric plane
Appleby, center. Beta Technologies claims that their aircraft design originated from the Arctic tern. Brian Jenkins/BETA Technologies

Safety looms large when flying a new type of aircraft, as these new eVTOL-type aircraft certainly are; the pilots had parachutes and other safety equipment. In fact, an unmanned electric flying machine from another company, Joby, crashed in February, and the National Transportation Safety Board has so far issued a preliminary report. No one was hurt, Joby reported to the SEC.

“We did everything we could to mitigate a lot of those risks from the unknown,” Griffiths recalled. “But you have to go out there and fly it.”

Watch moments from the Air Force tests, below:

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