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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Beta secures U.S. Air Force’s first approval for manned electric flight tests

Beta Technologies has received a Military Flight Release (MFR) for its Alia eVTOL from the U.S. Air Force — the first such approval for manned operations of an electric aircraft.

Beta Alia manned eVTOL
Beta’s Alia eVTOL in airplane mode. The 7,000-lb. class aircraft has begun manned flights under an Air Force operational flight test program. Eric Adams Photo

Vermont-based Beta is the second company to announce receipt of an MFR through the Air Force’s Agility Prime program to accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry. California’s Joby Aviation received the first U.S. military airworthiness approval for an eVTOL aircraft last year, but that initial MFR is for unmanned operations only, even though Joby’s certified aircraft will be piloted and both companies have Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to conduct piloted flight tests.

Beta’s MFR allows it to perform flight tests for the Air Force with an onboard pilot, albeit in airplane rather than VTOL mode (Joby’s unmanned MFR encompasses both modes). After an early series of tethered hover tests, Beta has been flying Alia with its overhead lifting propellers removed while it explores the aircraft’s fixed-wing handling characteristics.

The company plans to return to hover testing in the near future, and expects its work with the Air Force to eventually exploit Alia’s full performance envelope.

“Achieving the first manned airworthiness authorization in the Agility Prime program is a key milestone,” stated Col. Nathan Diller, director of the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation program, in a press release. “This not only unlocks the opportunity to begin Air Force directed manned flight tests, but it also shows the high level of maturity of this technology and the high level of maturity of Agility Prime partner companies like Beta.”

Beta Alia eVTOL
To grant the MFR, Air Force subject matter experts evaluated every aspect of Alia for safety, design, and maintenance standards, and participated in flight test campaign planning. Eric Adams Photo

Beta said the Air Force spent over a year assessing Alia, “conducting deep dives into engineering, operations and flight test capabilities against the demanding military 516c standard.” Additionally, engineers from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) used their unique equipment and analysis capabilities to perform ground vibration testing, a method of dynamic structural analysis, on the Alia aircraft. According to Beta, the resulting data will be used to further advance Alia’s flight test program while also providing insights to the Air Force on novel aircraft design.

“The speed and efficiency of the Air Force Agility Prime program to support sustainable electric aviation has been remarkable,” said Beta founder and CEO Kyle Clark. “The people and expertise that the Air Force has brought to the electric aviation industry and specifically our Alia program is accelerating the development of incredibly capable, safe, and reliable aircraft.”

In addition to working with the Air Force on real-life field and flight testing, Beta has deployed two physics-based flight simulators that are available to Air Force personnel: one near AFRL in Springfield, Ohio, and another in Washington, D.C. Beta said the simulators allow Air Force pilots and engineers to rehearse and test Alia in a variety of potential mission sets and scenarios, including weather, emergency handling, battle damage, and advanced mission scenario simulation.

Beta plans to continue testing basic aircraft capabilities including range, altitude, endurance, and payload limits before exploring specific cargo, logistics, and other missions. Cost, maintainability, and availability will be tracked and assessed during operational test and evaluation.

In addition to its work with the Air Force, Beta recently announced deals with UPS and Blade to use Alia aircraft for cargo and urban air mobility missions, respectively. The company is targeting FAA certification in time for first deliveries in 2024.

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