Vertical flight solutions provider Bristow Group is looking to shorten the runway for short-hop advanced air mobility (AAM) flights.
The Houston-based operator on Wednesday placed a deposit on early delivery positions for five hybrid-electric, ultra-short takeoff and landing (eSTOL) aircraft from manufacturer Electra.aero. The companies signed a memorandum of understanding for the preorder of up to 50 aircraft in 2021, and Bristow is expected to be Electra’s principal launch operational customer.
“This cash deposit is a real show of confidence in our eSTOL aircraft and a validation of our development roadmap,” said John S. Langford, chair and CEO of Electra. “Bristow is a true AAM leader, and we look forward with anticipation to the future delivery of our aircraft to Bristow’s fleet.”
Bristow will use the eSTOL aircraft to offer zero-emission, regional air mobility (RAM) passenger services, with routes spanning 50 to 500 sm (43 to 434 nm). The design can take off and land in locations as small as 300 by 100 feet—less than the size of an American football field—which opens up operations out of remote or underutilized airports.
Electra achieves this through a unique blown-lift architecture, wherein slipstream flows are directed back over the wings into large flaps and ailerons, which direct the flows downward to augment lift. According to the company, this allows the aircraft to takeoff at “neighborhood driving speeds,” shortening the runway requirement.
“Bristow looks forward to being among the first AAM companies to add the Electra eSTOL aircraft to our fleet and offer our customers the advantages of this new class of aircraft,” said Dave Stepanek, executive vice president and chief transformation officer of Bristow. “Electra’s eSTOL aircraft aligns perfectly with our vision, while enabling new markets at substantially lower operating costs.”
Bristow’s deposit comes just a few days after a major milestone for Electra: the maiden voyage of its EL-2 Goldfinch demonstrator, which was unveiled in June. The company claims the 23-minute, 30 sm (26 nm) flight was the “world’s first” of a hybrid eSTOL design.
The aircraft’s eight electric motors run on a small turbogenerator, which uses hybrid-electric power to recharge its batteries. Electra says this reduces emissions (by 30 percent) and noise (75 dBA at 300 feet, equivalent to a vacuum cleaner) below those of traditional airplanes or rotorcraft. There’s also the benefit of added range and payload, stemming from the eSTOL’s lack of reliance on ground-based electric chargers and the reduced energy requirements of blown lift.
Unlike air taxis manufactured by Joby Aviation or Archer Aviation, for example, Electra’s design uses fixed wings and rigid propellers, so there is no hover or transition to forward flight. The configuration gives it a path to be certified as a multiengine, Level 3, low-speed airplane under FAA Part 23 and be operated with a standard pilot’s certificate in the airplane category.
Electra’s isn’t the only electric aircraft design Bristow has looked to snap up over the past few years.
In 2021, the helicopter operator announced a partnership with the U.K.’s Vertical Aerospace for the delivery of up to 50 VA-X4 air taxis, positioning them as some of the earliest additions to the firm’s eVTOL fleet. The following year, it added an order for up to 50 Lilium Jets and another for as many as 55 Alia-250s from Beta Technologies.
More recently, Bristow in September placed deposits for the early delivery of five Elroy Air Chaparral cargo drones, the first shipment of its preorder for up to 100 aircraft. Just a few days later, the company agreed to order as many as 80 Volocopter VoloCity air taxis, placing a firm order for two of them.