Palo Alto, California-based Opener this week completed the first public demonstration of its BlackFly eVTOL aircraft at the Experimental Aviation Association’s (EAA) AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. During the daily airshow on Tuesday, the company flew two BlackFly models for a few minutes, topping out at speeds of 35 mph (56 km/h) and an altitude of about 70 feet (21 meters).
The landmark flight for Opener signaled a re-entry into the public space for a company that has largely remained silent for the last two years. Last year, Opener emerged on Twitter to say only, “we’ve been busy.”
That absence has been quite intentional, said Celia Oakley, director of information at Opener. “We’re well funded, and so we wanted to focus on the design, technology, and engineering without distraction,” she said. “We haven’t been promoting ourselves in the media because we have the luxury of being able to focus on the technology without needing to attract investors.”
When asked how that approach will fare for the public acceptance of Opener’s technology, Oakley said that the company is creating plans to introduce BlackFly to the world more publicly, although she didn’t provide specifics.
Public acceptance may very well be a very important piece of the model that Opener is pursuing, seeing that BlackFly pilots — which the company calls “operators” — do not actually need a pilot certificate to purchase and operate the ultralight aircraft.
This philosophy translates right back to the company’s test team as well, given that all the operators flying BlackFly during testing are also engineers, said Eleanor Li, plant manager and operator at Opener. Li was the operator during the first flight at AirVenture this week, but like Opener’s prospective customers, she does not hold a pilot certificate.
“We have three operators here, and it’s all our first time flying at an airshow,” she said. “I’ve only ever flown BlackFly aircraft.”
Because of this model, the company plans to operate a two-day training program for onboarding new operators who purchase BlackFly aircraft, Li said. That program will be completed on Opener’s proprietary simulators, which consist of controls modeled after the real aircraft and run unique code meant to simulate the eVTOL’s behavior in flight. Li said that the company used the same simulators to repeatedly train for the flight that was conducted at AirVenture.
Although this lack of pilot certification might raise safety questions, the company maintains that its aircraft is extremely safe for anyone who chooses to fly it. The BlackFly has what Opener calls “triple modular redundant” systems, meaning that there are multiple built-in back-up systems that will sustain flight in the case of a failure, said Kristina Menton, director of operations for Opener. Menton said that’s an important piece of allowing non-pilots to fly the aircraft, supported by the training program.
The training program will supplement a sales event that the company said it is planning for the fall, possibly signaling that it is ready to be in the public eye again. Menton reinforced that through her clear excitement about the completion of this week’s flight. “This is just the very beginning. It’s the first flight we’ve done in front of an audience greater than 12 people,” she said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what the aircraft can really do.”