Buttigieg gets hands-on introduction to this all-electric cargo aircraft

Alia electric aircraft flown from New York to Kentucky cargo facility

Beta Technologies’ recent piloted test flight from upstate New York to a cargo warehouse in Louisville required minimal special accommodations or airspace clearances, prompting one of the pilots on the journey to say such flights in the company’s electric Alia SN1 have become routine. 

Lochie Ferrier, a pilot and engineer with the Vermont-based company, was one of two flyers who alternated in the cockpit during the six-day journey that began in late November and covered 1,410 kilometers. It was the second multileg long-distance flight for the Alia, after a journey of 4,440 kilometers last summer. Beta has a Special Airworthiness Certificate from FAA, which allows demonstrations and crew training.

“We didn’t pre-arrange much at all, with these airports, the airspace, and we were able to move it across the country in real winter weather, which is pretty brutal flying weather, in a fairly short time,” Ferrier told me. 

The primary purpose of the flight was to position the aircraft at a United Parcel Service cargo facility in Louisville so that UPS could show the aircraft to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during his scheduled tour of the facility on Dec. 6. UPS last year announced its intent to purchase 150 Alias for operations starting in 2024, but Beta has yet to receive FAA type certification. The Alia SN1 had a pilot seat and a cargo hold, but there was no cargo for this flight, only a single pilot.

A secondary purpose was to continue learning about the aircraft and its systems, especially regarding repeated recharging of the batteries during a flight that crossed several state lines. Beta plans to focus its early operations on cargo flights while continuing to develop a passenger variant of the Alia for air taxi service. 

The SN1 arrived at the cargo facility at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport on Dec. 3.  Buttigieg’s office said he viewed the aircraft and chatted with Beta officials. A spokesman from Buttigieg’s office declined to say what was discussed.

According to Beta, Buttigieg received a tour of the aircraft while he talked with CEO Kyle Clark about electric aviation, the multileg journey to Louisville, and the company’s electric propulsion system and charging infrastructure.

Before arriving in Louisville, Ferrier and the plane were grounded for a day and a half during a snow shower in New York.

“It’s an experimental aircraft so we treat these prototypes with kid gloves, and we eliminate as much weather risk as possible,” Ferrier said.

The company says it has completed more than 30,000 kilometers of test flights this year with the SN1, which is powered by lithium-ion batteries. The electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOL, has a lift-plus-cruise configuration, meaning it has vertical lift rotors and a separate propeller for forward motion. 

Beta wants its operational aircraft to be capable of taking off and landing vertically so they do not have to operate solely out of conventional airports, but the SN1 flew as a conventional aircraft during the flight to Louisville, with its four vertical lift rotors locked in an aerodynamic cruise position and the single rear propeller providing conventional thrust. That’s because the company has focused most of its testing so far on proving the aircraft capabilities for longer flights, and vertical lift function drains the battery much faster than cruise mode.  

To reserve the SN1 for long-distance flights and testing of battery charging procedures and other systems, Beta has begun short hover flights with another prototype, the Alia SN2, Ferrier said.

Despite this heavy focus on flights in conventional mode, Ferrier said he believes the Alia design and its methods of charging are nearing a state of readiness for commercial service. 

“We’ve gotten it to the point where it’s almost boring, and that means you’re close to something that’s commercially viable,” Ferrier said.

He said the biggest lesson learned during the latest flight was how to smoothly recharge the plane, which was done by a crew consisting of the two mission pilots and additional Beta pilots or other employees who followed the flight. Twice the crew was able to recharge the batteries for the next leg in less than an hour. The longest charge period was just over two hours.

In most cases, the charging was done at permanent stations established by Beta, although temporary charging stations were deployed three times, he said. The company is building a network of charging stations, with nine sites online today, six more in late-stage development and 50 or more in permitting or construction.

“One thing we learned was to make sure the charging station is outdoors, because we had one case where a plane was parked in front of the station in a hangar,” Ferrier said.

Beta also has aspirations in the field of automation. “One of the lessons we learned is actually that we’d like to get a little bit more of an autopilot function in there, just to reduce the pilot workload during cross country trips. But it’s a hand-flown airplane.”

Still, he said the Alia is relatively easy to fly, compared to the Cessna Caravan chase plane that also made the journey.

“You basically take off and set the power for cruise, and then all we’re doing is holding an altitude and navigating to where we want to go,” Ferrier said. “We’re not up there fiddling with how many electrons are flowing into the motor or something.”

After the meeting with Buttigieg, the aircraft was flown back to Beta’s flight test center in Plattsburgh, New York, the company said.

“We learn every time that we go on the road — things we may not learn if we’re just flying around a single airport in a controlled environment,” Ferrier said.

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Beta Technologies employees in a Cessna chase plane followed the company's Alia electric aircraft (in the distance) over the course of a six-day flight that concluded in early December. Credit: Beta Technologies

Buttigieg gets hands-on introduction to this all-electric cargo aircraft