U.S. Air Force pilots have performed the first crewed demonstration flights for an Agility Prime partner, using Beta Technologies’ Alia electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
The flights, which took place March 9 at Beta’s flight test facility in Plattsburgh, New York, sets Beta apart from other Agility Prime partners that have been operating aircraft by remote control under the program.
The Air Force’s two-year-old AFWERX Agility Prime program is specifically designed to accelerate development of prototype commercial eVTOL aircraft through funding for early flight testing and experimentation.
“The first flight of a service member in an electric aircraft with a Department of Defense airworthiness marks a key milestone in expanding the safety, affordability, availability, and sustainability of air travel,” said AFWERX director, Col. Nathan Diller in a statement.
Beta has been developing Alia for more than three years as part of the recent aviation industry push to successfully develop a zero-emission electric aircraft that can fly like an airplane while landing and taking off like a helicopter. With a wingspan of 50 feet, four fixed rotors, and a single rear-mounted propeller, Alia has achieved a top speed of about 150 kts with a targeted range of 250 nm on a single charge.
The flights were piloted by Maj. Jonathan Appleby and Hank “Hog” Griffiths, AFWERX airworthiness and test lead and chief of engineering. Griffiths said these were the first of many test flights planned with Beta and other Agility Prime partners.
“In addition to accelerating these company’s path to FAA type certification by providing access to USAF engineering expertise and test infrastructure, we are also evaluating these prototypes for opportunities to utilize them for unique military missions,” Griffiths said in a statement. “We need government pilots to accomplish those evaluations and this is the first step in developing the training and experimentation plans to do so.”
Before the flights, Griffiths and Appleby underwent extensive training led by Beta, including intensive academics specific to the aircraft as well as time in the “thunderdome” simulator.
These first crewed flights come a year after the Air Force awarded Beta the first airworthiness approval for a crewed electric aircraft, following a partnership that began in February 2020.
“For over two years, we’ve worked hand-in-hand with the Air Force Agility Prime team to refine our electric aircraft, and we’ve made great progress together,” said Beta Technologies founder and CEO Kyle Clark in the release. “It’s an honor to have Hank Griffiths and Maj. Appleby fly our aircraft, and we’re humbled by the Air Force’s continued support and confidence in our engineering. This flight signifies an important milestone, providing the opportunity for a clean future for our nation’s military and a path to fossil fuel independence.”
Beta expects to achieve FAA type certification for Alia in 2024, but the company has already announced purchase agreements with UPS Flight Forward (NYSE:UPS) and Blade Urban Air Mobility (NASDAQ:BLDE).
The company is well along in establishing a network of charging stations designed to serve all electric vehicles—including cars and trucks—in addition to electric aircraft. So far, Beta says it has more than 60 charging stations online or in development from Vermont to Arkansas. More sites are planned, the company says.