Archer Aviation’s Midnight electric air taxi is finally airborne.
After receiving a special airworthiness certificate from the FAA to begin testing the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) design in August, a noncomforming Midnight prototype has completed its inaugural test flight.
The five-seat aircraft—the first Midnight prototype to be rolled off the manufacturer’s Palo Alto, California, production line in May—made an uncrewed, untethered hover flight on Tuesday, marking the next phase of Archer’s flight test regimen.
Following uncrewed flights, the firm will move to piloted “for-credit” testing with the FAA, using a type-conforming Midnight model. That campaign is considered one of the final steps in eVTOL type certification. Archer expects for-credit testing to begin in early 2024.
Midnight’s first flight follows four years of testing with earlier prototypes, including two years spent evaluating a pair of Maker aircraft. Maker is the company’s two-seat, 80-percent-scale version of Midnight, which it uses as a technology demonstrator.
“This next phase of Archer’s flight test program is only possible because of the four years of flight testing we’ve done,” said Adam Goldstein, the firm’s founder and CEO. “Midnight is building on the successes of its predecessor aircraft and represents another significant step forward in Archer’s path to commercialization. The next year and a half will be focused on continuing to rapidly advance our flight test program and Archer’s electric air taxi operations.”
Archer said uncrewed Midnight flight testing will “progress rapidly” over the coming months, quickly advancing from simple hover maneuvers to transitions between vertical lift and full wing-borne cruise.
Simultaneously, the manufacturer plans to continue its Maker flight test program, flying simulated commercial routes to prepare for the launch of commercial operations. That’s scheduled for 2025 after Midnight obtains type certification and other FAA-required approvals.
“Having taken seven full-size eVTOL aircraft from design to flight test during my career in the eVTOL industry, [Tuesday’s] milestone with Midnight marks the most significant flight to date, bringing Archer and the eVTOL industry another step closer to bringing a scalable and commercially viable aircraft to market,” said Archer chief operating officer Tom Muniz, who previously served as vice president of engineering for Kitty Hawk and its eVTOL manufacturing spinoff, Wisk Aero.
Archer expects Midnight to fly in U.S. markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and the New York City metro area in partnership with United Airlines, which in 2021 invested in the manufacturer. The airline placed an order for 100 aircraft valued at $1 billion, with an option for $500 million worth of additional units. It made an initial $10 million prepayment to Archer in August 2022.
Midnight can carry a pilot and up to four passengers (or 1,000 pounds of cargo) as far as 100 sm (87 nm) at a cruise speed of 130 knots. But the air taxi is optimized for back-to-back, short-hop flights with about 12 minutes of downtime in between, which will be used to charge the aircraft.
By Archer’s estimate, 20 to 50 sm (17 to 43 nm) trips that would normally take up to an hour and a half by car will be replaced by 10- to 20-minute flights. Because Midnight will have such little downtime—and will be cheaper to produce than its competitors, the company claims—Archer believes its air taxi routes will be cost-competitive with ground-based rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft.
Midnight’s 12 electric engines run on six lithium-ion battery packs from Taiwanese manufacturer Molicel, powering a dozen propellers. The tiltrotor design positions six of them on each side of the aircraft’s fixed wings—the front props tilt forward during cruise to provide added thrust, while the back props lock in place. Archer says the propulsion system allows Midnight to produce 45 dB less noise than a helicopter while at cruising altitude.
The manufacturer’s agreement with Molicel is one of many it leverages to source parts and systems for Midnight, which allows it to funnel more time and money into aircraft performance, certification, and operational readiness. The design incorporates avionics from Safran and Garmin and actuators from Honeywell.
Archer also has a battery development and sourcing collaboration with automaker Stellantis, with which it signed an exclusive mass production partnership in January.
What It Means
Even with Midnight’s inaugural flight, Archer will need to complete plenty of additional testing before obtaining type certification. But the milestone adds to the manufacturer’s recent momentum and should help it stay on track.
Stellantis is now working with Archer to build what the firm described as the “world’s largest” eVTOL production plant in Covington, Georgia. Construction on the facility began in March. Phase one of the site is expected to be completed by 2024 and will span 350,000 square feet, allowing Archer to churn out 650 aircraft per year.
Earlier this month, Archer closed a financing agreement with Synovus Bank, securing $65 million in fresh capital. The funding will cover the “substantial majority” of phase one construction costs, adding to incentives from the state of Georgia and $150 million worth of equity capital from Stellantis, which the company will be able to draw from as needed throughout this year and next.
In the future, phase two of construction could expand the site to 900,000 square feet, giving it enough juice to produce up to 2,000 Midnight models per year.
Archer’s main U.S. competitor, Joby Aviation, announced the location of its own scaled manufacturing plant last month. The firm’s facility at Dayton International Airport (KDAY) is initially expected to produce 500 air taxis annually, with the potential for more down the line. Recently, Joby began crewed flight testing of its production prototype with a pilot on board.
But neither company will be able to ramp up manufacturing until they obtain FAA production certification, which will follow type approval. Having received the first eVTOL airworthiness criteria from the agency at the end of 2022, Archer and Joby are two of the furthest along in that process among U.S. electric air taxi manufacturers.
Following the start of Midnight flight testing, Archer anticipates it will deliver the first of six aircraft to the U.S. Air Force as early as this year. The shipments are part of its lucrative contracts with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, which explores defense applications for emerging aircraft designs and seeks to accelerate their commercial deployment.
The agreement, worth up to $142 million, is one of the largest defense contracts for an eVTOL manufacturer. Archer kicked off the execution phase earlier this month after receiving an initial $1 million deposit for a mobile flight simulator, which the Air Force will use to train pilots on Midnight’s systems.
Once the aircraft arrives, pilots will deploy it for personnel transport, logistics support, rescue operations, and other missions. Other military branches will be able to leverage the contracts for additional projects. Archer has even hinted that it could one day develop a version of Midnight specifically for Air Force applications.
The partnership should give Archer valuable insights on Midnight’s performance, aiding its flight test campaign. Following FAA type, production, and airworthiness approvals, the manufacturer will also need to obtain a Part 135 air carrier certificate for powered-lift operations to begin flying as a commercial operator.
In addition to U.S. cities, the Middle East could launch Midnight’s earliest commercial flights. Archer recently announced a plan to establish air taxi routes across the United Arab Emirates in 2026, working with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office.