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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

q-and-a

Q-and-A with HopFlyt’s Rory Feely

Rory Feely is a U.S. Marine Corps aviator, experimental test pilot, and executive officer of the Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. He’s also the co-founder and chief test pilot for HopFlyt, which is building a novel, all-electric VTOL aircraft — the Venturi — based on the channel wing concept first developed in the 1920s.

On top of all this, Feely is a co-founder and administrator of the eVTOL Community Forum on Slack, a new online forum dedicated to fostering productive conversations within the growing eVTOL community. I recently caught up with Feely to learn more about his passion for vertical flight, the progress of the Venturi, and how he hopes to develop the eVTOL Community Forum as a resource for everyone in this emerging industry. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Rory Feely AH-1Z helicopter
Rory Feely with a Bell AH-1Z Viper he flew in the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of Rory Feely

eVTOL.com: Tell me a bit about your background in aviation and how you got interested in eVTOLs.

Rory Feely: So my background in aviation started, honestly, with Magnum, P.I. Do you remember the helicopter that used to be in the opening credits for that, that T.C. flew? This was when I was a kid growing up — and I grew up in Ireland — there was this great clip of it coming down over a cliff face and then kind of flying out over the water. I just thought that looked really neat. Fast forward to when I had a little bit more sense, and I’d finished up school and university in Ireland, and I’d immigrated here to the States. Like most folks in their early 20s, I was probably just wandering, looking for something to do. And I went into the military, and that’s where my journey in professional aviation started.

I initially started on [Lockheed] C130s as an aerial navigator, and that job no longer exists. Soon out of that job, I got picked up for a commission in the Marine Corps and became a helicopter pilot, flying Cobra helicopters. After amassing a certain amount of training and qualifications, I started to look to other things that I wanted to do. I had a technical background — my bachelor’s degree was in physics — and I applied to Naval Test Pilot School. From there I got a postgraduate professional degree as an engineering test pilot.

Fast forward even farther into my career and I had done some work in Naval Aviation program offices — so those corporate centers that are set up to manage aircraft over their life cycle. And along the way I was selected for a fellowship program where I went and worked a year in industry. I visited about eight to 10 of the top Fortune 500 companies that participate in the program, but I was primarily assigned to 3M. It was such a great experience, and during that timeframe coming out of that, I said, you know, I think I could do more. I just happened to reconnect with an old friend who had started a company and I said, this sounds like the perfect opportunity. And that was almost three years ago. So that’s when I literally jumped into HopFlyt.

HopFlyt Venturi eVTOL
The HopFlyt Venturi design uses the channel wing principle initially developed by Willard Ray Custer in the 1920s. HopFlyt Image

eVTOL.com: Tell me more about HopFlyt — the company and the vehicle that you’re designing.

RF: So HopFlyt has a patent-pending design on an aircraft that incorporates two technologies and mashes them together. We think it will produce superior performance, and all of the initial early-stage flight test demonstrates that. [One of those] technologies is called the channel wing, that was developed by a gentleman by the name of Custer. And the basic concept there is, if I want to develop lift on a wing, I need to move air over the wing — so either accelerate the plane down the runway, or if I can drag air over the wing somehow, then I can also create the lift. The channel wing does just that: it drags the air over the wing by incorporating a propeller into a semicircle in the wing.

The second concept it uses is a wing and canard design. Most conventional airplanes have wings, and then they have these little small wings at the back of the tail section. But what you can do as well is you can take those wings from the back and put them up front; they’re called canards, and they do largely the same function, except they are a little bit more efficient in some ways. Now, what we’ve done with that canard-style design is we’ve made each of those canards and the wings independently variable with respect to the airframe. So they can tilt separately and independently, and that has allowed us to remove all of the other flight controls that would normally be on there — get rid of ailerons and flaps and rudders and those things.

We’re building one of these aircraft right now. We have a small prototype that’s flying; we’ve got another larger-scale one that should finish in around November this year, and we hope to start flying it by April or May of next year. That aircraft will be probably about 100 pounds in weight and have about an eight-foot wingspan. We’ve also completed a lot of the early-stage engineering analysis on a full-scale prototype and have started constructing a fuselage.

eVTOL.com: Very exciting.

RF: Yeah, it’s exciting. Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself — like holy smokes, you never would have thought that from where we started two years ago. But it’s good stuff. And then I like meeting people that are interested in talking about this industry, so that was where the eVTOL Community Forum came from. I went to the most recent Vertical Flight Society annual forum, and there met a few other folks who said, you know, there are enough people talking about this, but nobody’s really gathered the crowd together. And if that could be done, that would prove useful… and if nothing else interesting, right?

eVTOL.com: Absolutely. So what are some of the things you hope to accomplish with the forum?

RF: With the forum? I think just a general awareness and understanding for the community itself. We consider ourselves community governed, and I think that’s important. Our goals right now are finding ways to provide interesting content from the perspective of having a discussion about it, challenging it, and/or supporting it or contradicting it. Basically bringing a level of informative discussion to what we see happening in that marketplace. And then to grow and be a resource for the community.

I anticipate that the topics of conversation will change over time as certain things become less challenging. As problems get solved or solutions appear, then the topic of conversation will naturally move on to the next thing. And hopefully folks can make connections out of the forum and the conversation will be of value to them.

HopFlyt team and Venturi A3 eVTOL
The HopFlyt team in January 2019 with the Venturi A3. HopFlyt Photo

eVTOL.com: One thing I’ve been interested to see, as someone who’s steeped in the traditional helicopter industry, is that it seems to be a very different makeup of people being attracted to this eVTOL world. There are some people from traditional aviation paths, but also a lot of new perspectives from Silicon Valley and elsewhere. What are you seeing, both in your activities with HopFlyt and then also on the eVTOL Community Forum, in terms of where people are coming from with respect to an aviation background or other types of backgrounds?

RF: I actually see it as more of the new wave and less of the traditional. It’s changing slightly, where more of the traditional [aviation industry] is recognizing the new outlook on the horizon. But it started off most definitely with the visionary or “think wrong” mentality.

Here’s what was obvious to me at the very first Uber Elevate conference: the people that weren’t there were large aerospace manufacturers, or if they were there, they weren’t there with any very open presence. I think now the larger companies can’t ignore that this is working, because people are flying the aircraft. But if you take a look at what I would call some of the most successful early-stage startups that are flying prototypes, none of them are the big names.

I still think it’s very much an innovator’s space. And I think the main reason may be the type of DNA in those people: they don’t look at the cost first, they look at it like, “Wow, can we really do this?” The wow factor is still very much there for them. You know, it’s a pretty neat feeling to build something and then fly it — not just buy it and fly it, but build it and fly it yourself. There’s a lot of satisfaction in making your own things, and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the innovation side of it and the maker space side of it still.

To request an invite to the eVTOL Community Forum, DM your email address to eVTOL Community (@EvtolC) on Twitter.

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