This week, around 300 of the most influential figures in transportation gathered in Dallas for the UP.Summit, an annual, three-day event centered on the industry’s cutting edge. Aviation technology, and electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft in particular, turned plenty of heads—literally.
That strange-looking aircraft is the BlackFly, the preproduction model of personal eVTOL manufacturer Pivotal, which on Thursday rebranded from Opener Aero. The company also unveiled Helix, its first scalable production aircraft, which will go on sale for a base price of $190,000 starting in January.
The company said the new design supports “its transition to become a product-delivering entity.” Pivotal is referring to delivering at scale here. But already it has sold and delivered a BlackFly to customer Tim Lum, whom the firm considers to be the first private eVTOL pilot in the world. SkyDrive, a Japanese eVTOL maker, claimed the first private customer for its SB-05 in April but has not delivered the aircraft.
BlackFly has been in development for more than a decade and features a patented “aeroarchitecture,” as Pivotal CEO Ken Karklin refers to the aircraft’s structure and systems. But Helix will help the company take the next step.
“With Helix, we become the leading manufacturer of light eVTOL aircraft,” Karklin said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Helix presents the next iteration of 10-plus years of innovating, testing, and delivering on the promise to give individuals access to small, yet mighty aircraft. Pivotal reflects our mission to transform movement with the power of flight. The new identity shows the versatility of our system architecture and encapsulates both the exhilaration and utility of flight.”
Karklin, a 13-year veteran of AeroVironment—where he was named chief operating officer in 2020 before taking the reins of Pivotal in May 2022—sat down with FLYING to discuss the ins and outs of Helix, as well as the Early Access Program that has allowed customers such as Lum to become personal eVTOL trailblazers.
Helix is built on Pivotal’s fourth-generation eVTOL platform and is aimed primarily at recreational flyers and short-hop travelers. Like its predecessor, the new design relies on a tilt-aircraft architecture. In other words, the entire aircraft—not just the rotors and propellers, as is the case with many other manufacturers—tilts when transitioning between hover and cruise.
The Helix includes an integrated display and user interface, providing real-time altitude, location, speed, and other key measurements. Both BlackFly and Helix utilize the same core control system, and the aerodynamics are nearly identical between the two. Both models include a full-aircraft parachute as a backup safety system.
BlackFly and Helix are winged lift-plus-cruise designs, relying fully on propulsion for hover but allowing the aircraft to glide on its wings in cruise. As seen in the video above, the transition happens pretty quickly. And having flown a BlackFly simulator, I can tell you that changing flight modes was as simple as pushing a button and pulling or pushing the joystick.
Helix, however, will offer improved power and propulsion to expand its range of use cases, Karklin told FLYING. For example, greater efficiency at higher revolutions per minute will enable flights at higher altitudes. The new design also features upgraded digital electronics hardware, and its target payload will surpass BlackFly’s 200 pounds (though Karklin couldn’t yet specify by how much).
Helix’s flight deck “won’t be as austere as a race car,” said Karklin, alluding to the BlackFly’s more stark architecture: a carbon fiber frame, basic seat, and two joysticks.
“That’s it,” he said. “If you’re buying an expensive vehicle like [Helix], you’d expect a little bit more.”
So, Pivotal redesigned BlackFly’s canopy and flight deck to give Helix an integrated pilot display, more comfortable seating, and improved safety features. For example, a new and more durable livery will reduce the effects of weather, age, and solar loading, extending the airframe’s lifespan and increasing comfort.
“With the Helix, we now have new composite materials that make up that aerostructure,” Karklin said. “A lot of the weight comes out. That enables us to have the kind of creature comforts and accessories that a premium aircraft buyer would expect. They can select beacon lights. They’ll be able to select an aviation radio, [and] they’ll be able to have a livery that they want.”
Other add-ons will include a transport trailer, fast charging, aviation and ground radios, ADS-B, and a gimbal camera that would allow someone on the ground to watch the flight as if they’re in the air with the pilot.
Customers will also be able to download a free smartphone app that simplifies preflight checks, captures flight history, and manages charging and aircraft service. And in the future, the company will add support for next-generation, field-replaceable batteries to extend the eVTOL’s range and endurance.
Pivotal has tentatively priced Helix at $190,000, but customers can place their orders starting in January for a deposit of 25 percent of the purchase price. Initial shipments are expected June 10. After 12 months of producing the aircraft, Karklin expects Pivotal to churn out “a couple hundred in the first year.”
Helix was designed to comply with FAA Part 103 ultralight requirements: Pilots must fly it during the daytime in Class G airspace over uncongested areas, but they won’t require certification to do so.
The model is primarily geared toward recreation. But Karklin noted public service and defense as other possible use cases. Part 103, he said, allows some rule bending for these applications, and Pivotal could conceivably build a bigger, faster, rangier design to use as a search and rescue platform, for example. He claimed the company could cross-train an EMT to fly Helix in just a few weeks.
“They could be the first person that arrives on the scene of an accident that takes them an extra 45 minutes or hour to get to via truck, because they can fly point to point,” Karklin said. “And that could save lives.”
Further down the line, whenever the FAA’s MOSAIC proposal is codified, Karklin said Pivotal could certify a future model as light sport aircraft, enabling some commercial operations.
Lessons From BlackFly
Pivotal is unique in the eVTOL space, having already sold its preproduction model to a half dozen customers. By and large, rivals in the space have developed working prototypes and allowed some users to fly simulators (and even preproduction models). But none have actually sold and delivered an aircraft to a private customer outright.
The company required prospective owners to complete initial and recurrent flight training to ensure safety, and customers can select those dates based on delivery timing. Karklin said BlackFly users typically train on a simulator for about a week before being cleared for takeoff.
All this has been facilitated by Pivotal’s Early Access Program. The company selected participants who are at least 18 years of age, live in the U.S., have access to Class G airspace, and are willing to commit time to training and program development. Not only does this allow users to get in on the action early, but it provides the company with valuable customer feedback.
Karklin said there are six spots left to fill. Readers interested in owning their own BlackFly can apply to join “The 12” by filling out this form.