Vermont-based eVTOL developer Beta Technologies hasn’t announced a billion-dollar IPO or coughed up any non-binding agreements to build bustling vertiports in global cities, but it has flown its fully electric airplane between two separate airports. In reality, that’s a much bigger deal.
The achievement on Wednesday, in which Beta’s Alia-250 prototype made a flight from its primary test location in Plattsburgh, New York, across Lake Champlain to the company’s headquarters in nearby Burlington, Vermont, has practical significance in addition to being a meaningful moment for the company’s nearly 200 engineers, designers, fabricators, and other team members. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t allow experimental aircraft to fly beyond their base airports until they’re proven stable enough to do so, so Wednesday’s mission represents that achievement and a closing of the initial phase of flight test.
In order to qualify for the multi-airport flight, executed by test pilot Camron “Arlo” Guthrie, who climbed to 8,000 feet before crossing the lake in sunny, chilly early-morning conditions, Beta had to validate Alia’s reliable and predictable behavior during takeoffs and landings, but also its stall characteristics, upset recovery abilities, glide performance, and controllability across other key phases of flight.
Company founder, CEO, and chief test pilot Kyle Clark said that the company added its own requirements along the way. Beta airlifted Alia to Plattsburgh last June after several months of tethered hover tests and began a rigorous flight test program in New York. The engineers validated the lift-over-drag ratio and the propulsion system’s thrust-to-weight ratio, conducted taxi tests, and studied how the aircraft handles at or near the stall point, Clark said.
“That’s really important because you have to come near that every time you transition onto the rotors for vertical flight,” he said.
In accordance with Beta’s test philosophy, the plan was to first hover the aircraft, then go fly it solely in conventional forward flight, nudging it toward the slowest possible flight on the fixed wing, and then move back to hover testing as they progress toward full eVTOL transitions.
“We’ve painted the ends of the envelope now and brought the fixed wing back to the slow condition,” Clark said. “Now it’s time to bring Alia back to our research and development center here in Vermont.”
Production versions of Alia will enter service first in commercial, industrial, and military applications — as a cargo, utility, and transport aircraft — before moving into the consumer air taxi realm. Alia will now travel back and forth between the two airports occasionally as testing continues and within a few weeks have its top rotors reinstalled for vertical flight tests.
This week’s milestone comes with a variety of other recent achievements for the company. Not only did Alia reach 8,000 feet altitude during recent flights, it also set a new personal-best in range — a number the company isn’t ready to disclose at this time. (The straight-line distance between Plattsburgh and Burlington is only 18 miles/29 kilometers, but the flight involved a steady circular climb to 8,000 feet before crossing, then an orbit above Burlington International Airport. The mission was easily completed with just three battery packs installed, of five possible, and took 50 minutes.)
Beta expects Alia to have a maximum range of 250 miles (400 km), including a vertical takeoff and a vertical landing.
Beta is also nearing completion of its second composite-built prototype and it recently joined a handful of eVTOL manufacturers to be admitted to the General Aviation Manufacturer’s Association. Clark noted that this is in response to the eVTOL movement’s focus on commercializing the aircraft, which GAMA supports.
While flight test is the largest part of the company’s daily operations, it’s also working hard on what Clark calls its “ground game” — the development and installation of charging stations that will allow the company’s aircraft to begin cross-country flights.
“We just completed our network that goes from here in Vermont, across the top of New York, across the top Pennsylvania, and all the way down into Ohio to near Wright Patterson Air Force Base,” he said. “So we’ve completed that network, and we have now a facility at the Springfield, Ohio, airport with a full immersive simulator for the Air Force.”
This is in support of the Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative, which the branch is using to help ensure that the next generation of aerospace technologies grow in the United States rather than abroad. Beta has set up a similar simulator and charging pad near Washington, D.C.
Clark said pursuing all these channels helps make the new technology commercially viable.
“Describing the air taxi market in detail, with passengers coming into vertiports that are 18 stories tall, is very understandable, but it’s not the problem that needs to be solved today,” he added. “There’s still nobody who has certified or is commercially operating an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, so the problem that does need to be solved today is to make intensely reliable propulsion systems and put them into really smart aircraft configurations. That’s what we’re focused on.”