At a tiny airport nestled in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains along Lake Champlain and the New York-Vermont border, few would suspect a close-knit team of pilots, engineers, managers, and technicians are working together to bring aviation into the electric age.
For the past few years, their small, privately held company, called Beta Technologies, has been quietly developing a new kind of electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft from their headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, and a flight test facility at New York’s Plattsburgh International Airport (KPBG).
Aerospace engineer Kyle Clark, Beta’s founder (and an ex-pro-hockey player), says a key reason behind their success is a strong sense of teamwork.
“There have been a hundred times when my bacon was saved by having a good team culture,” Clark says. It’s a concept, he says, that works especially well for developing entirely new types of aircraft.
“Aerospace, unlike many other forms of engineering, is technologically unforgiving,” Clark says. “You don’t get to leave weight or performance on the table. You have to understand these things enough to have a multidisciplinary optimization point. That means you have to have empathy for all the people around you; whether they’re working on the landing gear, or the thermals, or the fluid, or the power electronics.”
Beta’s eVTOL demonstrator, called Alia, is coming off recent success as the first electric aircraft piloted by the U.S. Air Force in its Agility Prime military research program. On Wednesday, the startup announced it had raised $375 million in Series B funding, bringing its total investments to nearly $800 million.
In addition to Air Force support, Beta also has purchase agreements with UPS (NYSE: UPS), Blade Urban Air Mobility (NASDAQ: BLDE) and biotech company United Therapeutics. The company aims to position itself on the cutting edge of a new electric era of aviation by manufacturing a zero-emission aircraft for cargo transport, and later, passengers.
About the Aircraft
Alia’s unique design combines a high, arched, 50-foot wing, a carbon-fiber fuselage, battery powered motors driving a single push propeller, and four proprotors for vertical lift. Alia’s speed: About 150 knots. MTOW: 6,999 pounds. Payload capacity: 1,400 pounds. Range: 250 nm. FAA type certification for Alia is expected by 2024.
Alia will be able to recharge its batteries after a full mission in under an hour, Beta says. The startup is developing a network of battery charging stations for all electric vehicles—cars, trucks, and aircraft—across several states, with plans to expand nationwide.
Not Exactly the Traditional Route
Clark, 42, will be the first to tell you his path to aviation was not typical.
It began as Clark was growing up around his father’s machine shop in Vermont, where he met an aerobatic pilot named George Coy who rebuilt trainer airplanes—some from overseas. After high school classes, Clark would spend time helping out.
Once, Coy took him up in a side-by-side Zlin 142 aerobatic with a sliding canopy. The pilot went inverted and slid the canopy forward. Clark remembers his mentor joking, “‘Just cleaning the plane out, getting out the M&Ms!’”
“I was totally hooked,” Clark recalls.
At Harvard, Clark’s childhood dream of flying and building aircraft took a detour when his love and talent for ice hockey got him drafted by the National Hockey League.
In 1999, he signed with the Washington Capitals organization, which sent him to its farm team in Richmond, Virginia. Clark remembers the day after his first pro game, “I went to the local airport with my signing bonus and said, ‘I want a pilot’s license,’ and I started taking proper lessons at that time.’”
Despite the logistical challenges of trying to find time for lessons while moving from team to team, Clark remained determined. Finally, after a successful check ride in a Piper Cub at tiny, privately owned Northern Lights Airport (VT46) near Alburg, Vermont, Clark got his pilot certificate, followed shortly after by his instrument rating in a Cessna 170.
“So, it wasn’t the traditional route,” he says with a smile.
No ‘Singular Genius’
After pro hockey, Clark graduated from Harvard in 2004 and began working full time to build the aviation business of his dreams—with his team experience informing the company culture.
“Everybody on a team has a role, whether you’re the headliner or a solid defenseman that nobody ever hears about,” Clark says. “This is very close to home: I push away this notion that there’s a singular genius that figures all this out and moves forward. It’s a massive group effort of multiple geniuses, each in their own way putting it together.”
Is it better to be a fixed-wing pilot or a helicopter pilot when flying Alia? Beta test pilot Nick Warren has a diplomatic answer for that question: “It’s good to just be an aviator.”
Warren says Alia is an aircraft very well suited for pilots. “It’s quiet. It glides almost like a glider. It has plenty of thrust,” he says. “Without being too corny, it’s just this magical experience.”
He should know. Warren came to Beta after a career as a U.S. Marine Corps attack helicopter pilot and former Marine One aviator—tasked with flying President Barack Obama to and from the White House.
Now, he’s focused on exploring and expanding Alia’s flight test envelope.
“Upstream of every flight we do, we’re briefing, we’re rehearsing,” Warren says. “We have this unbelievable simulator that I can tell you from the pilot’s side—and I’ve been in many sims both civilian and military—this is far and away the most accurate representation of a simulator to aircraft that has ever existed. Not just because we made it, but it’s the reality of it. It’s the physics of it.”
Once test pilots validate that their test flight proposals will work in the sim, then they’ll go fly. “Nothing is the same day to day. And you’re always kind of on your A game every time you have an opportunity to fly this aircraft, for sure.”
No Rudder Pedals
Alia’s flight controls are very intuitive, Warren says. The pilot sits in the left seat, controlling the twin-tailed eVTOL with a fly-by-wire connected side-stick—what Beta calls the inceptor.
At the pilot’s left hand is a second flight control device, a lift lever, which operates Alia’s four proprotors. On that same left-hand device, located under the pilot’s thumb, is a throttle that controls the thrust of the pusher propeller in the rear of the aircraft.
Remarkably, there are no rudder pedals. “In the aircraft, we control yaw with our hand. We’re trying to make this aircraft as simple as possible.”
Nothing like a yoke in a typical GA cockpit, Alia’s controls offer pilots “beautiful control harmony between pitch, roll and yaw, all in one hand,” Warren says. Thrust control is “super responsive.”
Because it’s electric, “there’s no spool up of a piston or turbine. It’s just this immediate beautiful application of power. It’s not unlike an electric car that just immediately putting torque to the wheels. Same thing here, as we’re winding up the pusher. It’s quite a thing.”
Predisposed to Love Aviation
Much of Beta’s team culture developed organically among its about 350 employees. “Once we established ourselves in this community, the people who love to fly and who love aviation started to show up here,” Clark says. “It’s not like we created that. The people who showed up here already were predisposed to love aviation—everybody in their own way.”
Beta mechanical product designer and developer Joshua Myslik gravitated to Beta because of his love for flying and his unique path to aviation.
Myslik’s introduction to aviation came when a mentor began taking him flying regularly in several different types—a Boeing Stearman, an Aviat Husky, and a Harmon F1 Rocket
A few years later, after being laid off from a Pixar-funded company doing stop motion animation, Myslik took his fat severance check and did something extraordinary. Despite not having his pilot certificate at the time, he learned how to fly aerobatics.
A flight school in Livermore, California, showed him how to execute loops, rolls, and spins in a Citabria. “That’s pretty much where I got the bug.”
As Myslik remembers it, his CFI put him in the front seat and “he let me kind of do everything from the very first day that we went out. It was awesome. He would demonstrate a loop and then he would say, ‘Alright it’s all about energy management—go ahead and do the loop.’”
“Aerobatics are a lot about feel,” Myslik explains. “How much are you loading up the wing? Are you close to stall? I got it really quickly. I think from mountain biking and dirt biking and snowboarding as a kid, I kind of understood energy management. So getting into a plane and being able to feel that—and unload and load as needed—in three axes—it was like the coolest thing I ever experienced in my life.”
After learning how to fly aerobatics, “I said, ‘I guess I should probably get my license now.’”
A high school friend in his home state of Colorado was a CFI, and helped him get his private rating. And when he’s not helping to build new types of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, he still enjoys aerobatic flying today.
At Beta, Myslik recently was able to demonstrate a Beta engineer’s idea for a specific way to grind electric motor parts. After building a prototype motor that proved the concept, a supplier is using the concept to consistently and accurately manufacture the motor.
“We’re all working on the same goal and the rest of the team supported me by banging on my door, saying, ‘How can we help? How is this going? Here are some ideas.’”
Clark says it’s important to keep in mind that Beta isn’t trying to create new aerodynamic principles or new controls. “What we are developing is a new form of propulsion. That means that the subject matter experts on the ground who are looking at about 960 data points while the test pilot is flying” have to be “smarter and more in the game” than the pilots.
You don’t accomplish that, he says, without “absolute team mentality” and a “challenge culture.”
Helping Everyone Learn to Fly
“People perform better when they do what they love to do,” Clark says. At Beta, that especially includes flying.
After United Therapeutics founder, pilot, and aviation innovator Martine Rothblatt became an initial investor in the company in 2017, Beta began ramping up its development operations and hiring new team members.
“We had people in the company who weren’t pilots but they wanted to fly, so we used our Cessna 172 right out of the gates with five people to start flight training,” Clark recalls. “And that was kind of Day One of the company: that everybody who wanted to was going to fly if they were going to be here.”
Chris and Laura Caputo are continuing that tradition. Although Beta has partnered with Canada’s CAE Inc. (NYSE: CAE) to offer flight training for future Alia pilots, the Caputos are helping to run an internal employee flight school.
As a married couple, the Caputos are a team amongst themselves. In the mid-1990s, Laura was Chris’ T-37 flight instructor when they both served in the U.S. Air Force. “I owe all my aviation prowess to Laura,” her husband jokes, prompting Laura to kid back: “I did the best I could. He was not an easy student to work with.”
Laura Caputo, who still serves in the military with the Vermont Air National Guard, is helping to run the company’s flight training program for Beta employees. The goal is that every employee who wants to learn to fly can do so.
Chris Caputo, whose 31 years in the Air Force include time as a combat A-10 “Warthog” and F-16 “Viper” fighter pilot, trains current Air Force pilots to fly Alia.
Being a member of the fighter pilot community engrained in Chris Caputo the value of a disciplined approach to flight safety. It also taught him the benefits of the fighter pilot debrief, where members of the Beta team learn to be transparent and comfortable sharing your failures as well as successes.
“We’re moving pretty fast and you can’t move fast without making decisions,” he explains. “And you can’t have a hierarchical organization where everybody’s having to ask for permission to make a decision, so we trust and empower our teammates to make informed decisions based on science, physics, data—not on emotion. When we realize that decision might not have been the best one and we failed, we share that mistake.”
Bureaucratic barriers at Beta are kept to a minimum, Laura Caputo says. Work roles are not as precisely defined as you might expect. Employees become familiar with a mission and its related tasks and then, “if you have skill sets that you think can help further the mission, you can go exercise them in this area,” she says.
“I don’t have that opportunity in the military world. It’s hard for me to go to Beta and not see opportunity everywhere I look.”
Beta was built by employees with a love for aviation who come with a diversity of aviation experiences, Clark says. Some team members come to the company as a “cross between engineering and flying,” others “are a cross between team-building and flying.”
Whatever the case, clearly the common denominator is flying.
“That,” says Clark, “is what creates the aviation culture here.”